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.