JERUSALEM — Pope Francis turned what had been billed as a religious pilgrimage to the West Bank and Israel into an effort to renew the stalled peace process Sunday, inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to join him at his Vatican home in a prayer for peace.
The unusual invitation was an acknowledgement of the political dimensions of the visit, which has been orchestrated to maintain a balance between conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims.
The declared centerpiece of the trip was the pope's meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church, the eumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to mark the 50th anniversary of the reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
The two religious leaders signed a joint declaration, according to Vatican television, and were scheduled to meet again today to give renewed impetus to efforts to heal a rift that split eastern and western Christianity in 1054.
But the more contemporary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians took prominence during the pope's visit to the West Bank and upon his arrival in Israel.
His invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was welcomed by both sides, though the proposed meeting was widely seen as symbolic and not a forum for negotiations.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he officiated at a Mass attended by thousands in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born, the pope invited Abbas and Peres to his home "to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace."
He repeated the invitation later at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, where he was greeted by Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The pope's statements and itinerary during his six-hour visit to the West Bank and planned 28 hours in Israel, ending this evening, was carefully designed to navigate the political minefield of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, showing empathy for both sides.
In a nod to Palestinian aspirations for statehood, the pope arrived by helicopter in Bethlehem from Jordan and referred to "the good relations existing between the Holy See and the state of Palestine."
In an unscheduled stop on the way to Manger Square that provided a powerful image, the pope got out of his car to pause for prayer at a section of a high concrete wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem — part of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank and a symbol of occupation to many Palestinians.