By FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither in Bethlehem
In the little town of Bethlehem, even the tree trunks had been painted white, in preparation for the arrival of Pope Francis.
“Improvise.” That seemed to be the word used most to describe the 266th Pope in the days leading up to his whirlwind trip to the Holy Land. No one I spoke to believed he’d stick to the script and he didn’t disappoint.
Whether it was deviating from prepared speeches, or squeezing in impromptu stops to his already packed itinerary, the Pope surprised at every turn.
Vatican officials told us at the start of his trip, the Pope’s visit was a religious pilgrimage. But it’s impossible to come here and avoid politics, and the Pope dove straight into the thorny issues of the Middle East.
“I think he will help to raise the bar,” said Catholic Priest Eamon Kelly. “Not so much to be a broker of managing getting together, but more saying ‘lift up your hearts, and look at each other in the eye with a new attitude’.”
Despite the neatly manicured flowerbeds and well-choreographed photo opportunities, the Pope’s unexpected stop at Israel’s West Bank barrier in Bethlehem is likely to be the enduring image of this trip.
In an act described as deeply moving by Palestinians, the Pope touched the wall and said a prayer. Scrawled above him, graffiti read: “Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice” and “Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto.” Beforehand, he’d called the current stalemate in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks “unacceptable.”
Delivering a powerful boost of support for the Palestinians he further cemented his reputation as the Pope that champions the underdog referring to the “State of Palestine” and arriving directly to Bethlehem by helicopter from Jordan.
In another unscripted move at the end of the open air Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the Pope invited the Palestinian and Israeli Presidents to the Vatican next month to pray for peace.
“This visit of the Pope has brought new hope to the people,” Emma Alaina told me over the cheering crowd gathered for Mass.
“I think it’s a much needed inspiration for people,” she continued. Alaina is a second generation Palestinian, born in America. Her parents fled during Israel’s creation in 1948.
Songs of praise rung out in the square competing with the Muslim call to prayer echoing loudly in the background as Mass drew to an end. It made for an unusual mix of sounds, but seemed especially fitting, given the Pope’s message of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Moments after the Pope left the square and families scrambled to get out of the midday sun both leaders accepted the Pope’s invitation. “President Peres has supported and will continue to support all avenues to bring about peace,” Peres’ office said in a statement.
But no sooner after cleaners descended on the square armed with brooms and trash bags, local commentators were pointing out that the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, is weeks away from retirement and his role is mostly ceremonial.
There’s little hope that this unusual initiative to pray for peace at the Vatican will make any difference in the decades-long conflict.
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