Pope Francis knew what he was doing when he stopped to pray at Israel’s separation barrier

Francis prays at the separation barrier on his way to a Mass in Manger Square, Bethlehem (Photo: PA)

The Pope of surprises has done it again during his Holy Land visit, delighting Palestinians by stopping to pray at Israel’s separation barrier.

The barrier is a powerful symbol. In practical terms it has saved countless lives, though at the cost of making life harder for people on the other side, as well as those whose property the barrier goes through, including a Christian family in Bethlehem who featured in the Herald a few Christmases back.

But in symbolic terms, for Israel’s critics, it illustrates discrimination or racism or apartheid or whatever people comfortably living in Europe wish to call it, free as they are from the threat of suicide attacks or the terror of minority status.

And this Pope understands symbolism – earlier today he kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors – and will be aware that prayer at the wall will place pressure on Israel (a further point is that he prayed beside graffiti calling for a Free Palestine and attacking Israeli “apartheid”, although I doubt that this was intended.)

Pope Francis came here promising religion, not politics, but no one who visits this fascinating and beautiful place can leave without strongly desiring peace for the two peoples, and if anyone can bring it about, Pope Francis can. His invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for peace was not a political act, but it can’t help but encourage both sides to co-operate in this great game of prisoner’s dilemma.