Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I pray over the Stone of Unction at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on May 25. Picture: AFP Photo/Pool/Andrew Medichini
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.
After starting his journey in Jordan, where he appealed for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, Francis then began the Israeli-Palestinian leg of the trip by flying directly to Bethlehem, in what was seen as a nod to Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
There, he won further plaudits from the Palestinians with an unscheduled stop by the West Bank barrier.
Dressed in his white cassock and flanked by anxious Palestinian security guards, he walked over to the eight-metre (26-foot) concrete barrier and took a few moments to pray, his forehead and hand resting on the wall.
"Pope, we need someone to speak about justice" read one of the slogans where he stood.
It was a powerful show of support which was warmly welcomed by the Palestinians.
"It was an eloquent and clear message to the whole world, particularly to Israel, that we cannot reach peace while Israel continues to build racist separation walls between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples," said Nimr Hammad, political adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Israel says the vast barrier, which it began building in 2002, is crucial for security. Palestinians see it as a land grab aimed at stealing territory they want for a future state.
As he rolled into Bethlehem's Manger Square to celebrate mass, he won a raucous welcome from 10,000 pilgrims, as local Christians joined with the faithful from Europe, Africa and Asia to belt out hymns and carols.
"He's unlike other popes in terms of his humanity, and I hope he can bring real change on the ground," said Ibrahim Handal, a Bethlehem resident.
"Through faith, you can move mountains."
The pope then shared his lunch with several Palestinian families, also meeting children at Dheishe refugee camp, before taking a short flight to Tel Aviv.
There, he was officially welcomed on the red carpet by President Shimon Peres as Israeli and Vatican flags snapped jauntily in the breeze.
In a speech at the airport, Francis diverged from his prepared remarks to call for an end to intolerance, saying he was "profoundly saddened" by a deadly shooting attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels that left four people dead, two of them Israelis.
"Let us promote an education... where there will be no place for anti-Semitism in any of its forms or for expressions of hostility, discrimination or intolerance towards any individual or people," he said.
Later in Jerusalem, as his chopper touched down on a helipad near the Old City, the pope beamed as he was greeted by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim schoolchildren, who handed him a basket of fruit and another one of Holy Land earth.
Despite expectations he would steer clear of the thorny politics of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Argentine pontiff extended a personal invitation to Abbas and Peres to join him at the Vatican for a "heartfelt prayer" for peace.
"Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment," he said.
A senior Palestinian official confirmed Abbas had accepted and would visit the Vatican on June 6, but although Peres welcomed the invite, his office declined to say whether he would accept. AFP