For the thousands of Palestinians who gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square and along the roads of this hilly city, it was worth the long hours in the hot sun to hear that Pope Francis had referred directly to the "State of Palestine."
"World leaders, religious leaders come to visit Israel and they don't even bother to come to Palestinian areas and talk to us," said Mohammed Bashir, a 41-year-old engineer from Bethlehem. "In my heart, I feel joy and awe."
The Vatican recognized Palestine as a state in 2012 amid the UN vote to confer Palestinians with the status of a non-member observer state, until then only held by the Vatican.
"People dance around this word in circles, but to Palestinians it is very important to hear it," said Bashir. "It recognizes our right to exist here."
Pope Francis made the comments as part of a plea for peace on Sunday, saying the prolonged Israel-Palestinian conflict had become unacceptable. He called for leaders from both sides to show the necessary courage to forge a deal.
Unlike his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who rode around Bethlehem in a bulletproof car which made viewing him impossible, Pope Francis chose a vehicle that allowed him to wave to the thousands of people who had gathered along his route.
Later, in an unscheduled stop, he descended from his popemobile when it drove past the separation barrier, a looming wall that divides Bethlehem from the adjacent Jerusalem.
Under the shadow of an Israeli military watchtower, the Pope said a prayer. Near him Graffiti read "Free Palestine" and "Pope we need some1 to speak about justice."
He is due to travel to Israel Sunday afternoon for meetings with Israeli officials, and a visit to several sites in Jerusalem.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at email@example.com.
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