(Photo: Reuters/Mheisen Amareen)
Pope Francis wrapped up his visit to the Middle East by making final stops in Bethlehem and Israel on Sunday and Monday, paying a special surprise visit to the Wall of Bethlehem that separates Israel from the West Bank and offering quick prayer while at the wall.
Francis reportedly stopped at the wall for four minutes, leaning his head in to touch the stone on the wall next to a graffiti message that read "Free Palestine." He also placed his hand on the wall to pray during the unexpected stop.
The wall, also known as the Israeli West Bank barrier, was built by Israel to separate itself from the West Bank and the Palestinian population. Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesperson for the Vatican, told The Guardian that even members of Francis' own entourage were unaware that the Pope would make his stop at the separation wall.
"I was not informed [of his plans to stop]. It was planned by him the day before […] It was a very significant way to demonstrate his participation in suffering […] It was a profound spiritual moment in front of a symbol of division."
While en route to Manger Square in Bethlehem to deliver mass, Francis' open-sided Pope Mobile pulled off at the wall near Rachel's Tomb, and the Catholic leader wove his way through photographers and Palestinian children to offer his quick prayer at the wall.
Along with his symbolic stop at the Wall of Bethlehem, Francis also invited Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres to meet at the Vatican next month to offer a "heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace." The Associated Press reports that the two leaders have reportedly agreed to the meeting, and will participate in the prayer at the Vatican.
The pope began his three-day visit to the Middle East by arriving in Jordan, where he spoke on the Syrian crisis and the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, calling for a "peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis and a just solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict."
Francis then headed to Bethlehem on Sunday, eventually wrapping up his tour Monday in Jerusalem by making another surprise visit, at Israel's request, to the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he met with Holocaust survivors. In reference to the Holocaust, Francis reportedly said aloud: "Never again, Lord. Never again."