Pope says Israeli-Palestinian conflict 'unacceptable'

Pope says Israeli-Palestinian conflict 'unacceptable'
Pope Francis praying at Israel's separation barrier after he made an unscheduled stop at the security wall, drawing attention to the towering 8m-high concrete wall topped by a guard tower.

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories - Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at Israel's towering West Bank separation wall in Bethlehem Sunday after calling for an end to the "increasingly unacceptable" Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The pope has said his three-day visit to the Middle East, which began in Jordan Saturday, has "purely religious" motives, but Palestinians hoped he would show support for statehood, weeks after the collapse of US-brokered peace talks with the Israelis.

Francis was to continue his visit with a trip to Jerusalem later Sunday and meetings with Israeli leaders.

He flirted with the region's sensitive politics when he climbed out of his white, open jeep in Bethlehem as his convoy passed near the controversial separation wall erected by the Israelis.

Dressed in his white cassock and flanked by anxious Palestinian security guards, he walked over to the eight-metre (26-foot) high concrete barrier, which is topped by a guard tower.

Bowing his head in silent prayer, he paused for several minutes in front of the graffiti-daubed wall, his palm resting against the concrete.

"Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine," read the graffiti in English, scrawled over the wall that had been painted by the Israelis only on Friday.

The unexpected stop came as the pope, who is on a three-day visit to the Middle East, was on his way to celebrate mass with 10,000 pilgrims in a packed and colourful Manger Square, next to the site Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.

His arrival in the West Bank early Sunday marked the start of the second stage of his brief tour aimed at easing an ancient rift with Orthodox Christians and speaking out in favour of regional peace.

Looking tired as he arrived from Jordan by helicopter, the pope received a red carpet welcome from local officials and priests.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas received him at his palace with a warm embrace.

Abbas raised the thorny subject of Jerusalem - claimed both by Israel and the Palestinians as their capital - accusing Israel of "systematically acting to change its identity and character, and strangling the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, with the aim of pushing them out."

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