The Pope Prays in Bethlehem, Lets Graffiti Do the Talking

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank in the West Bank city of Bethlehem

In the wake of Pope Francis’ recent visit to Israel/Palestine, many watchers have commented on his unscheduled visit to the separation wall in Bethlehem – and are already referring to the picture taken there as “iconic.”  It is indeed a powerful image: with the Pope leaning his head against the wall in prayer standing next to a young girl holding a Palestinian flag. Emblazoned across the wall, the graffiti pointedly reads, “Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice” and “Pope, Bethlehem look like the Warsaw ghetto.”

Though the Pope made many stops at both Palestinian and Israeli sites, it is safe to say that his visit to the wall in Bethlehem will provide the most enduring image of the trip. Here we see the Pope praying at a very different kind of “wall.” While Popes and other religious dignitaries have long visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a matter of course, this was the first time a Pope had ever prayed at the separation wall. In his way, Pope Francis reminded us that while Israel has its wall, the Palestinians also have theirs. It was difficult to ignore the sacred symbolism of these parallel acts.

It was also difficult to ignore the powerful message imparted by the words of graffiti that framed the Pope as he leaned his head against the wall in prayer. By all accounts, there is every reason to believe that Pope Francis consciously chose this precise spot to alight from his Pope-mobile and engage in this impromptu prayer-session. In an eye-opening blog post , Bethlehem-based photojournalist Kelly Lynn has written about Mohammed Abu Srour, the young Palestinian activist who sprayed the graffiti message in advance of the Pope’s visit. Apparently, Mohammed and his comrades played an extensive game of cat and mouse with IDF soldiers and PA security before he was able to successfully spray his direct message just in time for the Pope’s arrival:

A few minutes before Pope Francis arrived, spray cans surfaced and activists from the previous day’s action began to paint over the newly, newly-painted wall and gate.  Mohammed climbed his friend’s shoulders and because of the frenzy, security personnel could not be bothered. “They painted all of the wall silver, you couldn’t see anything we did yesterday, so we decided to write again for the Pope.  We want him to pay attention to our issues as normal Palestinians,” explained Abu Srour.

And then, in a glass-covered pristine white pick-up truck, he came.

“I didn’t expect the Pope to go down and start to read the sentences and meet the children and people there.  He shocked us,” said Abu Srour.

For his part, the Pope’s driver later told the Wall Street Journal that when the Pope saw the graffiti, he asked him to stop the car:

Francis suddenly asked to pull over so he could step out. He opened the door and wandered toward the wall as his security detail scrambled to keep up with the 77-year-old pope.

Below the watchtower, Francis reached out to near where the graffiti had been scrawled and painted over two times before. He closed his eyes and began to pray.

In most other ways, Pope Francis’ visit represented a boiler plate Papal visit to the Holy Land, as he balanced his time and nuanced his statements with Israelis and Palestinians with the skill of a seasoned tight rope walker. Other than a reference in his sermon to “the State of Palestine,” he largely avoided pointed political comments. He used the safe language of “two states for two peoples” and extended an invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Abbas to visit the Vatican in June to pray together.  In the words of a Vatican spokesman:

The pope does not have a political agenda and does not have a proposal for diplomatic dialogue. This is not his mission. This is not what he desires.

Perhaps, but it is difficult to shake the now enduring image of the moment Pope Francis consciously chose to go off script. Even if protocol would not allow him to say so personally, he still allowed one young Palestinian’s spray painted plea to say it for him.

10 thoughts on “The Pope Prays in Bethlehem, Lets Graffiti Do the Talking

  1. Ruth Schoenberg

    The wall may be a lot of things to many people.but to compare it to the Warsaw ghetto is outrageous..even you,rabbi must realize that.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I don’t believe it is outrageous at all to compare Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto. The graffiti read: “Bethlehem look like the Warsaw ghetto.” It did not say “What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews.” And in truth, Bethlehem does in many ways resemble the Warsaw ghetto inasmuch as it represents an attempt by an occupying regime to control a specific population through the restriction of their movement.

      It’s also worth pointing out that the wall is not primarily about security – if it was it would have been set up along the Green Line, which is the internationally recognized border that separates Israel from the West Bank. But of course, it doesn’t – the wall cuts into large swaths of the West Bank in order to grab land that Israel seeks for Jewish settlement. In the case of Bethlehem, the course of the wall is particularly oppressive to residents, snaking directly through the city itself and almost completely surrounding the nearby Aida refugee camp (the site of the Pope’s impromptu prayer visit.)

  2. gwpj

    Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
    It’s interesting that in all the places I’ve read about the Pope stopping and praying here, I don’t recall one mention that this is a place he CHOSE to stop when he saw the graffiti.

  3. gwpj

    Thank you for writing this, Rabbi Rosen. In all the places where I have read about the Pope’s visit to Bethlehem and have seen this photo, you are the first one to mention that it was Pope Francis who stopped the vehicle at this location when he saw the graffiti. Thank you for posting this. I’ve shared and reflagged it.

  4. Vicky

    The effects of that prayer at the wall have been electrifying. I went out at about nine in the morning, wanting to see if I could get into Manger Square even without an entry card for Mass, and hoping to at least see the Pope arriving if I couldn’t go into the square itself. I had a presentiment that I would get to that Mass, and I did – a stranger in the Old City handed me a ticket! – so I was one of the nine thousand people waiting in the square when the Pope drove past ‘Aida. So I didn’t find out what he’d done until I went into the greengrocer’s on my street later that day. The greengrocer and his daughter, both Muslim, were discussing it animatedly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so excited. (I myself was excited enough to absent-mindedly buy the wrong vegetable and come home with a red cabbage instead of a beetroot.) Everyone I’ve spoken to here was so profoundly moved by what he did. It has been especially good for the children. I work with kids who struggle to see themselves as mattering at all: a couple of weeks ago a girl whose elder sister is traumatised and very unwell mentally began sobbing and said that after seven decades of nothing getting any better for anyone, how can she believe that things will ever get better for her sister? Does her sister matter that much? Something that the kids here often tell me is that nothing gets better, no one listens to what they have to say – and then the pope stopped his car and got out to read what any of them could have written, as though they were important people now, real people, not just ID numbers and a biometric handprint on an army database. I am getting a bit tearful just from remembering how happy and astounded they were, all because a man read some writing got down from his car to pray. I know that he has provoked outrage and disbelief on the other side of the wall, but I hope that he’s also provoked some curiosity at least, so that people ask themselves what the graffiti-sprayers needed him to know about, and what the wall might be hiding from their sight.

  5. Pingback: May 28th, 2014 « Tikkunista!

  6. skip schiel


    i use this vehicle to comment on your recent departure from your synagogue. i unequivocally laud you for your insight and courage in facing the debacle of palestine-israel. among your many remarks standing out for me is this, paraphrased: “until operation cast lead, i’d look at the situation in palestine-israel, throw up my hands, and say, ‘it’s complicated’. after cast lead, it’s no longer complicated.” may you continue your profound ministry in other ways. i look forward to learning more with you.


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