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Pope Francis arrives in the West Bank

Francis became the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than enter via Israel.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives at Manger Square before presiding over an open-air mass on 25 May 2014. Picture: AFP.

BETHLEHEM - Pope Francis arrived in the West Bank on Sunday to start the most delicate part of his stay in the Middle East, with visits to the Palestinian Territories and Israel, where his every word will be scrutinised.

Church officials say his three-day tour of the region, which started on Saturday in Jordan, is purely focused on religious issues. However, the dividing lines of the generations-old Middle East conflict will be impossible to ignore.

Francis flew straight by helicopter to Bethlehem, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than enter via Israel, a decision hailed by Palestinian officials as recognition of their push for full statehood.

Francis is due to celebrate an open-air mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square, close to where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Underlining the power of symbolism, a mural has been erected there showing Jesus swaddled in a Palestinian keffiyeh, with his father, Joseph, also wearing the black and white headdress, made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Authorities have likewise plastered images around the city comparing the experience of Palestinians to the suffering of Jesus, and officials have made sure the Pope will see the Israeli separation barrier that divides Bethlehem from Israel as he visits Palestinians at a nearby refugee camp.

Israel says the wall is needed to prevent attacks by militants.

His trip comes at a time of renewed uncertainty, with the latest in a long line of US-backed peace talks collapsing last month amid mutual recrimination and no clear ideas emerging over how to end decades of bloodshed and deadlock.

The Vatican supports the vision of an independent Palestine living in peace alongside Israel, and Francis on Saturday called for a "just solution" to the conflict - the sort of neutral language he is expected to adhere to during the stay.

Francis also appealed in Jordan for an end to Syria's civil war, and in an unscripted message, called for arms makers to be converted to become "constructors or peace."