Pope gives Palestinians boost of support

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Pope Francis hug each other as Francis arrives at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. 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. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Pope Francis hug each other as Francis arrives at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. 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. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Pope Francis prays at Israel’s separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate “unacceptable” as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Pope Francis, right, talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, during an official arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Pope Francis took a dramatic plunge Sunday into Mideast politics while on his Holy Land pilgrimage, receiving an acceptance from the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to visit him at the Vatican next month to discuss embattled peace efforts. The summit was an important moral victory for the pope, who is named after the peace-loving Francis of Assisi. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late April, and there have been no public high-level meetings for a year. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Pope Francis waves upon his arrival at the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. 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. (AP Photo/Mohamad Torokman, Pool)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Pope Francis inspect an honor guard as Francis arrives at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. 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. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Pope Francis delivered a powerful boost of support to the Palestinians during a Holy Land pilgrimage Sunday, repeatedly backing their statehood aspirations, praying solemnly at Israel’s controversial separation barrier and calling the stalemate in peace efforts “unacceptable.”

In an unscripted move, Francis arranged a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at the Vatican next month. The meeting, while largely symbolic, shows how the pope has sought to transform his immensely popular appeal into a moral force for peace.

On the second day of a three-day swing through the region, the pope arrived in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity, before heading to Israel for the final leg of his visit.

While Francis mingled warmly with his Israeli hosts, his trip to Bethlehem included the day’s most powerful images as he expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians.

“I am with you,” he told a group of Palestinian children at a stop in Bethlehem’s Deheishe refugee camp. He also held a private lunch with five Palestinian families who say they have been harmed by Israeli policies.

Even the pope’s arrival in Bethlehem — by helicopter straight from Jordan — carried important symbolic significance. Past papal visits to the West Bank have come through Israel, which captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinian officials hailed Francis’ decision to refer to the “state of Palestine.” In its official program, the Vatican referred to President Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine,” and his Bethlehem office as the “presidential palace.” He pointedly called Abbas a “man of peace.”

Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis as he arrived in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, shouting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the pope!” Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black and the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square, which is home to the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

“Coming to Bethlehem and flying to Bethlehem from Jordan shows solidarity with the Palestinian people, which is wonderful. We need that,” said Samar Sakkakin, a 52-year-old Palestinian-American from Canton, Michigan.

In November 2012, the U.N. 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’ arrival came weeks after the latest round of U.S.-backed peace talks collapsed. During nine months of negotiations, little — if any — progress was made, and there are no signs of talks resuming anytime soon.

Standing alongside Abbas at a welcome ceremony, Francis declared: “The time has come to put an end to this situation, which has become increasingly unacceptable.”

He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognized borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone. He urged both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.

In his remarks, Abbas voiced his concerns about the

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