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Pope Francis in Bethlehem: How the day unfolded

May 25, 2014 8:48 A.M. (Updated: May 26, 2014 3:44 P.M.)
16:40 Here ends our live report of the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Bethlehem. Francis travels next to occupied Jerusalem, where he will meet Israeli officials and Christian leaders.

16:39 Pope Francis has landed in Tel Aviv to begin the last leg of his visit to the Middle East, reporters observed.

16:19 His Holiness has departed Bethlehem after an intensive day in the southern West Bank city on his first official visit to the Holy Land as pope.

In the morning, Pope Francis led an open-air mass at Bethlehem's historic Manger Square after touring the city and greeting thousands of cheering onlookers.

He later met five Palestinian Christian families from across the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, who shared their experiences and struggles facing the community including the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

The pope continued on to Duheisha refugee camp, where he met with Palestinian children before boarding his helicopter for Tel Aviv.

This evening and tomorrow, the pope will tour occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli forces are on high alert after earlier arresting 26 Jewish extremists who took part in violent anti-pope clashes.

16:07 The pope has left Duheisha and arrived at the Bethlehem helipad, where he is preparing to board the official helicopter.

15:54 The delegation of children from Duheisha refugee camp presented Pope Francis with two gifts on behalf of the refugee children of Palestine during his visit to the camp.

They gave Francis a large card made in the style of those given out by the UN's refugee agency UNRWA in the name of Jesus Christ, who the children referred to as "the first refugee."

They also presented His Holiness with a key symbolizing the desire to return of 750,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were expelled from what became Israel in 1948 and were never allowed to go back to their homes.

15:43 Pope Francis is now meeting with children in Duheisha refugee camp, and the children are presenting a number of their wishes and hopes for basic freedoms for Palestinians.

Pope Francis is addressing the crowd in Spanish with an Arabic translator, and the children are welcoming him and expressing their hopes for peace in the land and support in the struggle of Palestinians to achieve their "basic rights" despite living "in the shadow of occupation."

The children also express their solidarity with the more than 100 hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons protesting their detention without charge or trial, as well as solidarity with Palestinian refugees in Syria's besieged Yarmouk camp.

As the pope is speaking, children are raising posters with various statements inscribed on them including "Muslims and Christians live under occupation" and "We demand the freedom of worship."

15:30 Pope Francis has left Manger Square en route to Duheisha camp, where he will meet with children from Bethlehem's largest refugee camp before continuing on to Jerusalem.

Duheisha refugee camp is one of three camps in Bethlehem housing more than 20,000 Palestinian refugees whose families were expelled or fled from their homes in what is today Israel in 1948.

Israel has never allowed them to fulfill the right to return to their homes, similar to around 9 million Palestinians worldwide.

15:06 Palestinian officials have reportedly accepted a papal invitation to attend a Vatican meeting with an Israeli delegation, CNN reported minutes ago.

The US news agency quoted an unnamed PLO executive committee member saying that the Palestinians were willing to take up an offer by the pope earlier today during his visit to Bethlehem.

A PLO spokesman told Ma'an that he could neither confirm nor deny the report.

14:34 We now have a full translation up of President Abbas' remarks during a news conference this morning welcoming Pope Francis on his first official visit to the Holy Land.

In his remarks, he stressed the need for the pope to support the work of Palestinians to end the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent, free Palestinian state:

We count on Your Holiness to contribute towards enabling our people to attain their freedom and full independence, by bringing the Israeli occupation to a complete end and establishing an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Abbas also stressed the precarious situation facing Palestinians as a result of the Israeli separation wall as well as policies of mass incarceration that have left thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons:

Your Holiness, you saw the monstrous wall being constructed by Israel, the occupying power on our land, at a time when we desperately needed to build bridges of communication and dialogue rather than anything that would sow the seeds of hatred, malice, and hostility. We, the people, are looking to live in freedom and dignity and to have sovereignty over our national soil, away from the occupation.

We have fully updated His Holiness on the outcome of the peace process and the pitfalls and obstacles which befell it, primarily the settlement enterprise, and daily attacks on places of worship including churches and mosques, as well as the continued detention of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, who yearn for freedom. A number of these prisoners have been on hunger strike for more than 30 days in protest against ill-treatment and detention without trial or verdict, under the pretext of "administrative detention."

Abbas' mention of the ongoing hunger strike of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners will certainly give hope to them and their families, especially as 100 more prisoners from Israel's Nafha prison have joined the strike in solidarity in the last two days.

14:20 Pope Francis is meeting with Christian Palestinian families at a restaurant in Manger Square before continuing on to Duheisha refugee camp, from where he plans to continue to Jerusalem.

A PLO source estimated that around 9,000 worshipers -- both local and foreign pilgrims -- turned out for the mass, while hundreds if not thousands more lined the roads between the presidential palace and the square to greet him.

Palestinian Christians traveled to Bethlehem from across the region to meet the pope, including 650 from Gaza who were given permits by Israel to travel to the West Bank. Only those above the age of 35 were allowed to travel.

Although around 1,500 Palestinian Christians live in Gaza and around 50,000 live in the West Bank, Israel has severely restricted the ability of Palestinians to move between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the imposition of a siege on Gaza in 2007.

Many also came to see the pope from inside Israel, where around 130,000 Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship -- the descendants of Palestinians who managed to stay on the land despite the 1948 campaign of expulsion against Palestinians -- still live.

We have some photos from the large open-air mass he held in Manger Square that ended just over an hour ago.

13:32 During Pope Francis' stop to pray at the separation wall, a group of children from nearby Aida refugee camp approached him to deliver a letter.

Aida refugee camp is one of three camps in Bethlehem housing more than 20,000 Palestinian refugees whose families were expelled or fled from their homes in what is today Israel in 1948.

Israel has never allowed them the fulfill the right to return to their homes, similar to around 9 million Palestinians worldwide.

Pope Francis plans to meet with a number of children from the camps at the Duheisha refugee camp, Bethlehem's largest with almost 15,000 residents, later Sunday.

The contents of the letter delivered to the pope are still unknown, but we have received a number of photos documenting the moment a girl approached him.

13:19 Israeli police have arrested 26 Jewish extremists who were "throwing stones and bottles" at a site in Mount Zion in Jerusalem that the pope is expected to visit tomorrow.

Two police officers were injured in the clashes.

The clashes come after 15 Jewish radicals were put under house arrest in recent days in order to prevent disturbances prior to His Holiness' visit, and amid a wave of anti-Christian and anti-Arab attacks within Israel in recent months.

Read the full story here.

13:06 His Holiness Pope Francis has concluded an open-air mass with just more than 9,000 worshipers in Bethlehem's Manger Square.

He is now headed to have lunch with five Palestinian Christian families from across the West Bank and Gaza at Casanova restaurant in the square.

12:52 Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA commissioner general, prepares to meet Pope Francis.

12:40 For those just joining us, Pope Francis has arrived via helicopter in Bethlehem from Jordan, where he began his first official visit to the Holy Land.

After a news conference beside President Mahmoud Abbas, His Holiness toured Bethlehem earlier Sunday and is giving an open-air mass in the city's historic Manger Square.

Following the service, the pope will have lunch with a number of Palestinian Christian families, who will share their concerns and experiences under occupation.

He will then meet with a number of children in Bethlehem's Duheisha refugee camp, home to nearly 15,000 Palestinians whose families were expelled from what became Israel in 1948, and have never been allowed to return.

Check out our live feed for full coverage.

Below are some images of the open-air mass in Manger Square currently underway. The Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, is visible to the right, while the Bethlehem Peace Center is directly behind the stage.

The Mosque of Omar is just out of the frame to the left. The mosque is the oldest in Bethlehem and is a symbol of coexistence, as it was built on land given by the Greek Orthodox Church to Bethlehem's Muslims community on the site where the Islamic caliph Omar ibn Khattab is believed to have issued a law guaranteeing respect for Christians and clergy in the Holy Land after conquering Palestine.

12:25 A number of organizations representing the Christian Palestinian community of occupied East Jerusalem have released a letter directed to Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I on the occasion of his visit with Pope Francis.

The letter, entitled "Our presence in Jerusalem is a legacy since the resurrection," welcomes the leader but expresses "dismay" at the church's failure to adopt a clear policy to defend the Christian Palestinian population of the holy city.

The groups highlight the decline in the population from 24,000 to 9,000 since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, blaming "displacement, house confiscation and demolitions, revocation and denial of residency rights and restrictions of movement."

We long to live normal lives in our city with full human rights and total freedom. Not with barriers and bars. We long for a living church, not empty stones. We aspire to self-determination, liberated from an oppressive occupation that imposes discriminatory regulations and laws where Jerusalem becomes exclusive for one people and one religion.

At a time when our mere existence in our city is threatened, we expect a different approach from our religious leadership to emphasize the Christian presence and existence in the Holy Land. We expect Your holiness to make gestures to your constituency that you care for, your constituency that remained faithful to Lord Jesus in his city Jerusalem as the first Christian congregation, and who welcomes you today in love and aspiration.

Unfortunately, Your holiness's program in Jerusalem does not provide any consideration towards the Palestinian Christians' aspirations nor their national leadership to send out a moral voice against Israeli policy of annexation and ethnic cleansing of all non-Jews in Jerusalem. As per International Law, East Jerusalem including all of the Old City is Palestinian.

Read the full letter.


12:01 Ahead of Pope Francis' visit, Israeli authorities have placed at least 15 suspected Jewish extremists under house arrest to ensure they do not disrupt the trip.

The move follows protests in recent weeks against his visit by ultra-Orthodox groups, as well as a wave of anti-Christian and anti-Arab "price-tag" hate crimes directed against church property and Christian holy sites across Israel.

Security in Jerusalem is especially high today ahead of his visit tomorrow, with large swathes of the historic Old City being closed off.

11:36 Pope Francis is addressing the crowd at an open-air mass in Bethlehem's historic Manger Square.

Check our live feed for full coverage.

11:34 As we reported earlier, while en route to Manger Square to deliver an open-air mass, Pope Francis exited his vehicle and stopped by the Israeli separation wall as it passes through northern Bethlehem.

While there, he prayed at the wall in the direction of Jerusalem, which is cut off from Bethlehem by the wall and the Israeli checkpoints.

11:28 The full text of Pope Francis' remarks earlier today at the presidential palace in Bethlehem are now available here.

In the address, he told President Abbas: "You are known as a man of peace and a peacemaker. Our recent meeting in the Vatican and my presence today in Palestine attest to the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine."

11:09 Prior to arriving in Manger Square a few minutes ago, Pope Francis stepped out of his car and walked to the Israeli separation wall as it cuts through northern Bethlehem.

11:06 President Mahmoud Abbas has now arrived in Manger Square, ahead of an open-air mass the pope is expected to deliver.

11:04 Pope Francis passed along the Hebron-Jerusalem road earlier before turning onto Nativity Street en route to Manger Square.

He passed through the entire city on his pope-mobile, foregoing the usual bulletproof glass to be closer to worshipers.

He is now greeting crowds and shaking hands in Manger Square.

10:52 Pope Francis has just arrived in Manger Square, where he is being greeted by around 9,000 worshipers ahead of an open-air mass he is expected to give in front of the Nativity Church.

10:26 A number of Palestinian Christian families from both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will meet with the pope over lunch today in Bethlehem.

The families plan to share their concerns and issues with His Holiness, stressing the effects of the Israeli occupation, land confiscation, and the blockade of Gaza on their lives and livelihoods.

Read our report on each of the families and their experiences here.

Juliet Abu Muhr of Beit Jala is a member of one of the families that will meet with the pope. The Abu Muhr family owns land near the Cremisan Monastery that is slated for confiscation by Israeli authorities. Part of it has already been taken to build a bypass road for Israeli settlers through the area.

"This land means the future of ourselves and our children. Our story is one of tens of thousands of stories of Palestinians who have been suffering from the separation wall and the settlements," Juliet Abu Muhr told Ma'an Saturday, in a message she plans to deliver to the pope as well.

10:18 Pope Francis and President Mahmoud Abbas are speaking at a joint news conference in Bethlehem. Check our live feed for full coverage.

10:03 A PLO source estimates that there are currently 9,000 worshipers gathered in Manger Square to greet the pope ahead of an open-air mass he is expected to hold there later this morning.

The square is overflowing, and the alleyways leading away are full of both locals and pilgrims eagerly awaiting His Holiness.

Here is a view of that crowd from above the square, with the Church of the Nativity to the right, the Bethlehem Peace Center straight ahead, and the Mosque of Omar on the left:

9:43 Abbas now welcoming pope at the presidential headquarters in Bethlehem.

9:38 In advance of the pope's visit today, the streets of Bethlehem have been lined with banners to welcome him.

Residents and local shopkeepers have put up personalized banners welcoming the pope on behalf of individual families, while officials have also covered the roads with posters.

Here's a picture of one banner near the separation wall in northern Bethlehem, not far from the checkpoint to enter Jerusalem:

The Palestinian Museum, meanwhile set up its own display to welcome the pope, with huge banners featuring classical European paintings of Biblical scenes juxtaposed with photographs from the last 66 years of Palestinian dispossession. Here's one of those posters:

Read more about the project in our report yesterday, "Bethlehem walls transformed in the presence of the Holy See.".

9:24 Ma'an editor-in chief Nasser Lahham says that the pope's visit to Bethlehem is a "confirmation that he recognizes the Palestinian state."

In 2012, Pope Francis officially endorsed a UN General Assembly resolution that recognized the State of Palestine as an official non-member state.

9:20 As we reported earlier, tens of thousands of people are awaiting the pope's visit across Bethlehem. A view of the scene near Manger Square can be seen here:

We also have some images of His Holiness' arrival via helicopter from Jordan from just a few minutes ago.

9:15 The pope has disembarked from his helicopter and is walking with President Mahmoud Abbas on the landing pad, before continuing on to Manger Square to preside over an open-air mass with tens of thousands of worshipers.

9:10 Thousands of worshipers are gathered in Bethlehem's historic Manger Square awaiting His Holiness ahead of an open-air mass he is expected to hold there in front of the Nativity Church.

The roads leading to the square from the helipad throughout Bethlehem are lined with pilgrims and locals eagerly expecting the pope with a mix of Vatican, Palestinian, and Argentine flags.

8:55 Pope Francis has arrived via helicopter from Jordan in Bethlehem, and just touched down at the helicopter pad near Duheisha refugee camp, where he was met by church and Palestinian officials.

8:50 Papal helicopter flies over Manger Square as thousands await His Holiness below.

8:45 Pope Francis continues his pilgrimage to the Holy Land today as he arrives in Bethlehem, after spending the day before in Jordan. Yesterday he gave a mass in Amman and met with Syrian refugees, before heading to the Jordan River.

He is expected to visit the Church of the Nativity this morning and will meet with Palestinian refugees at Duheisha refugee camp later in the day.
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