Pope makes Israeli-Palestinian peace bid on pilgrimage

Pope makes Israeli-Palestinian peace bid on pilgrimage
Pope Francis.

JERUSALEM - Pope Francis made a personal bid for peace on Sunday by inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican to pray for an end to their "increasingly unacceptable" conflict.

And he came face-to-face with daily Palestinian reality in Bethlehem when he made an unscheduled stop by the towering separation barrier Israel is building across the West Bank, and spent time talking with families and refugees.

But as he arrived in Jerusalem, the 77-year-old pontiff turned his attention to matters of faith, holding a landmark unity service with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I at Christianity's most sacred shrine.

Entering the dimly-lit Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, the two men, one in white, the other in black, knelt together to pray at the Stone of the Anointing where the body of Jesus was laid before burial, as a choir solemnly intoned a Greek chant.

The joint service on the 50th anniversary of a historic rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds was billed by the Vatican as the main reason for Francis' trip. The leaders also signed a declaration to further ease a centuries-long rift.

"There aren't really significant theological differences between the Orthodox church and the Catholic, church today, it's more about history and authority - issues which are not spiritual," Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land to AFP earlier this week.

Although the pope has said his three-day pilgrimage, which ends on Monday, has "purely religious" motives, his every gesture has come under close scrutiny, with Israel and the Palestinians keen to score a few political points.

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