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The Pope Walks In Bethlehem, Part Of His 'Pilgrimage For Prayer'


Pope Francis is visiting the Middle East this weekend. He began his morning in Bethlehem's iconic Manger Square where he said mass. And he's now in Jerusalem for the final leg of his trip. The Vatican had billed the visit as a pilgrimage for prayer with a focus on faith, not politics. But Pope Francis has found it hard to ignore the sensitive politics in the region. This morning, he called the stalled peace efforts increasingly unacceptable. And he invited both the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to meet at the Vatican next month. Both leaders have accepted the invitation.

NPR's Emily Harris joins us now from Jerusalem. So, Emily, this trip is turning out to be more political than originally planned. How significant is this particular invitation?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The invitation to the Vatican is significant in two ways. One, it shows - at least to Palestinians - that the pope wants to be involved in this conflict. And, again among Palestinians, it's seen as a real boost. It might add a dimension, something to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But we should exactly at who he invited. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is the Palestinian political leader. He's the force behind negotiations with Israel. But the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, is obviously an Israeli leader. He's a very popular one. But he is about to retire. He is not directly involved in the peace process. And he is already very outspoken about supporting peace, even making sacrifices for peace - a line he said in his greeting to Pope Francis today. The pope did not invite Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. And the Vatican says this is not a political meeting per se.

MARTIN: This morning, Pope Francis referred to the Palestinian territories as the State of Palestine. He also made a point of praying in Bethlehem at that wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. What do these gestures mean? How are they going over in the region?

HARRIS: Having the pope say that he was in Palestine praising the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Palestine was a big deal for Palestinians. It was a big deal even before he came because he put on his official itinerary he was visiting the State of Palestine. This is a point where Israel disagrees with the Vatican. And although Israel is very excited to have Pope Francis visit and welcomes the pope very warmly, they do point out that they have some disagreements on foreign policy with the Vatican. And this is the prime example. The prayer at the wall got a lot of attention in part because it was unplanned, and so the pope asked to stop and pray. The last two popes who visited this area did speak with the wall as a backdrop. So having the pope pray there was, again, a boost for the Palestinians.

MARTIN: And Pope Francis will be meeting tomorrow with Israeli officials and Jewish religious leaders. What can we expect out of that?

HARRIS: He will also visit the most holy site in Judaism - the Western Wall in the center of the old city of Jerusalem. And this is a part of his efforts to both show his interests in interfaith dialogue, the improving relationships between Judaism and the Vatican - the Catholic Church. He will be paying deep respects to the State of Israel in terms of laying a wreath at the memorial to the founder of Zionism. This is something which has also been politically contentious. But the effort on that end is to keep improving the relationship between Israel and the Vatican.

MARTIN: NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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