Standing beneath an Israeli watchtower, the separation wall looming over him, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics reached out and touched the metres-high concrete barrier that has become a symbol of repression to Palestinians throughout their divided state.
Pope Francis made the unscheduled stop at the Israeli-built wall, where he prayed silently for four minutes, on his way from the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem to Manger Square where he held an open-air mass for thousands of Christians on the second day of his three-day Middle East visit.
It is the first time a pope has touched the wall – a deeply contentious structure that runs for hundreds of kilometres that Israel says is vital to its security – and his actions resonated with Palestinians waiting in the square outside the Church of the Nativity where Christians believe Jesus was born.
During his open air mass in Manger Square, Francis departed from his prepared script to issue an invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to meet at the Vatican to discuss peace between Israel and Palestine.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as the place for this encounter for prayer,” Francis said. “Building peace is difficult but living without peace is a constant torment.”
Soon after the Pontiff’s offer, both Mr Abbas and Mr Peres confirmed they would meet Pope Francis at the Vatican next month.
Following the mass, the Pope met with Palestinian families on the outskirts of Dheisheh Refugee Camp.
He was scheduled to fly to Tel Aviv to be officially welcomed in Israel, then fly on to Jerusalem to preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
“It is significant that when the Pope saw the wall, the sniper tower and the gate, he insisted on getting out of his vehicle to feel what the Palestinians feel every day,” Ashraf Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation told Fairfax Media.
“He saw how it separates the two holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and prevents Palestinian Christians from reaching their places of worship.”
Earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis met Mr Abbas, where he referred directly to the "State of Palestine" - a recognition of Palestine's enhanced status in the United Nations - and urged both parties in the Israel-Palestine conflict to "intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace".
"Even in the absence of violence, the climate of instability and a lack of mutual understanding have produced insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation and the flight of entire communities, conflicts, shortages and sufferings of every sort," the Pope said.
In response, Mr Abbas noted he had raised with Francis the failure of the peace process, the daily attacks on Palestinians' places of worship, including churches and mosques as well as the detention of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
"You saw the monstrous wall being constructed by Israel ... at a time when we desperately need to build bridges of communication and dialogue rather than anything that would sow the seeds of hatred, malice and hostility."
President Abbas said a Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital would live alongside Israel in "security, mutual respect and good neighbourliness".
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement welcoming Pope Francis to the Holy Land, describing his visit as chance to show the world that Israel is the “only country in the Middle East that ensures complete freedom of worship to those of all faiths”.
The story Pope backs Palestinian State in unscripted stop at wall first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.