BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pope Francis landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state as he began a busy second day of his Mideast pilgrimage.
Jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians greeted Francis in Bethlehem's Manger Square, where he was to celebrate Mass on a stage next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black hanging alongside the Vatican's yellow-and-white flags decorated the square. Many in the crowd also wore black-and-white checkered scarves around their heads or necks, a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
Previous popes always came to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis, however, landed at a Bethlehem helipad from Jordan aboard a Jordanian helicopter and immediately headed into an official welcoming ceremony and meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In its official program, the Vatican referred to Abbas as the president of the "state of Palestine."
"The fact that he is coming straight from Jordan to Bethlehem, without going through Israel," is a tacit recognition of a Palestinian state, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who is a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a "state of Palestine" in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in the 1967 war — as a non-member observer. The recognition still has little meaning on the ground, with Israel remaining in full control of east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.
However, it has enabled the Palestinians to start seeking membership in U.N. agencies and accede to international conventions in a further upgrade of their status. Israel objects to the Palestinian campaign, saying it is an attempt to bypass negotiations.
Francis is expected to press the Vatican's call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his meeting with Abbas and later, upon arrival in Israel. He is also expected to give a word of encouragement to Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have been dwindling as the conflict drags on.
Currently, Christians are roughly 2 percent of the population of the Holy Land, down from about 10 percent at the time of Israel's establishment. In Bethlehem, they are less than one third of the population, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.
Early Sunday, police arrested 26 Israelis for throwing stones at police officers and causing disturbances at a Jerusalem holy site where the Pope will celebrate Mass at the end of his trip, Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said 150 religious Jews demonstrated at the holy site to protest rumors that Israel will transfer control of the site to the Vatican. According to Catholic tradition, the site marks the Last Supper of Jesus. But devout Jews believe the biblical King David is buried there, and they protest Christian prayer at the site. Israeli officials say there are no plans to turn the site over to the Vatican, but that they may reach a deal to allow more Christian prayer.
Francis' day calls for him to celebrate the Mass in Manger Square, where a large poster with a Nativity scene and the pontiff's three predecessors served as a backdrop to the altar. He was to lunch with Palestinian families and visit a Palestinian refugee camp before arriving at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport for a welcome ceremony.
His final event of the day is to be a prayer service with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Francis has said the encounter marking the 50th anniversary of a landmark meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement, was the primary reason for his three-day pilgrimage.
Winfield reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nwinfield .
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