Pope Francis has landed in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state as he prepared for a busy second day of his Middle East pilgrimage.
Previous popes have always come to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel, but Francis landed at a Bethlehem helicopter pad from Jordan and immediately headed into a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
In its official programme, the Vatican referred to Mr Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine”.
Francis is expected to repeat the Vatican’s call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his meetings with Mr Abbas and later upon his arrival in Israel.
In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognised a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel captured in the 1967 war – as a non-member observer.
The recognition still has little meaning on the ground, with Israel remaining in full control of east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.
However, it has enabled the Palestinians to start seeking membership of UN agencies and accede to international conventions in a further upgrade of their status.
Early today, police arrested 26 Israelis for throwing stones at police officers and causing disturbances at a Jerusalem holy site where the Pope will celebrate Mass at the end of his trip, Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
He said 150 religious Jews demonstrated at the holy site to protest at rumours that Israel will transfer control of the site to the Vatican. According to Catholic tradition, the site marks the Last Supper of Jesus, but devout Jews believe the biblical King David is buried there, and they protest over Christian prayer at the site.