The leader of Lebanon's largest Christian denomination visited Jerusalem on Sunday, an official said, making him the first Lebanese religious leader to set foot in the city since Israel captured its traditionally Arab eastern sector in the 1967 Mideast war.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, came to Jerusalem as part of a group of senior clergy accompanying Pope Francis on a Holy Land pilgrimage, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Lebanon and Israel are formally still at war, following a bloody history over decades.
Lebanese media have blasted the cardinal's plans to visit Jerusalem. On Sunday, the al-Akhbar newspaper wrote that "by coming here, he is forgiving the Zionists for the crimes they committed."
However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came to the defense of the cardinal and publicly demonstrated his support Sunday. In biblical Bethlehem, Abbas awarded Rai a medal, the "Star of Jerusalem," according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
Abbas told the cardinal he was being honored for his support of the Palestinian people "and in gratitude for his courage and visiting Jerusalem and breaking the siege and supporting the steadfastness of its people."
Rai said he came to the Holy Land to pray for peace. "If there is a peaceful solution in Palestine, then this will give benefits to the entire world," he said, according to WAFA. "We are with you (the Palestinians) and we defend your cause," he added.
Pope Francis delivered a powerful boost of support to the Palestinians Sunday, repeatedly backing their statehood aspirations, praying solemnly at Israel's controversial separation barrier and calling the stalemate in peace efforts "unacceptable."
The pope also lamented the dire state of Mideast peace efforts, saying the holy city of Jerusalem "remains deeply troubled."
He called for a "just and lasting solution" so that Israelis and Palestinians may live in peace. He said Israel deserves peace and security "within internationally recognized borders," while the Palestinians have a "right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement" in their own homeland.
In an unscripted move, Francis arranged a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at the Vatican next month. The meeting, while largely symbolic, shows how the pope has sought to transform his immensely popular appeal into a moral force for peace.
On the second day of a three-day swing through the region, the pope arrived in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity, before heading to Israel for the final leg of his visit.
While Francis mingled warmly with his Israeli hosts, his trip to Bethlehem included the day's most powerful images as he expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians.
"I am with you," he told a group of Palestinian children at a stop in Bethlehem's Deheishe refugee camp. He also held a private lunch with five Palestinian families who say they have been harmed by Israeli policies.
Even the pope's arrival in Bethlehem - by helicopter straight from Jordan - carried important symbolic significance. Past papal visits to the West Bank have come through Israel, which captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.
Palestinian officials hailed Francis' decision to refer to the "state of Palestine." In its official program, the Vatican referred to President Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the "state of Palestine," and his Bethlehem office as the "presidential palace." He pointedly called Abbas a "man of peace."
Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis as he arrived in Bethlehem's Manger Square, shouting "Viva al-Baba!" or "Long live the pope!" Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black and the Vatican's yellow-and-white flags decorated the square, which is home to the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
"Coming to Bethlehem and flying to Bethlehem from Jordan shows solidarity with the Palestinian people, which is wonderful. We need that," said Samar Sakkakin, a 52-year-old Palestinian American from Canton, Michigan.
In November 2012, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a "state of Palestine" in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - lands Israel captured in the 1967 war - as a non-member observer. Israel objects to the Palestinian campaign, saying it is an attempt to bypass negotiations.
Francis' arrival came weeks after the latest round of US-backed peace talks collapsed. During nine months of negotiations, little - if any - progress was made, and there are no signs of talks resuming anytime soon.
Standing alongside Abbas at a welcome ceremony, Francis declared: "The time has come to put an end to this situation, which has become increasingly unacceptable."
He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognized borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone. He urged both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.
In his remarks, Abbas voiced his concerns about the recent breakdown in peace efforts and lamented the difficult conditions facing the Palestinians.
Abbas said he would welcome papal intervention. "We welcome any initiative from you to make peace a reality in the Holy Land," Abbas said.
After the meeting, the pope's open-roof vehicle stopped at a section of the West Bank separation barrier, which encircles Bethlehem on three sides. Israel says the structure is a security measure. The Palestinians say it has gobbled up their land and stifled their economy.
France stood up, put a hand on the wall, bowed his head and said a short prayer alongside a section on which "Free Palestine" is scribbled in graffiti.
In another unscripted move, Francis issued a surprise joint invitation for Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to come to the Vatican to pray for peace together. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," he said.
The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed their acceptance, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would take place June 6.
The invitation - and the acceptances - were unexpected given Francis' insistence that his three-day visit was "strictly religious" pilgrimage to commemorate a Catholic-Orthodox anniversary.
Peres, a 90-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, holds a largely ceremonial position, and the Vatican meeting will be largely symbolic. But he nonetheless risks upsetting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the move.
Netanyahu has expressed anger with politicians that have reached out to Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group. Netanyahu's office declined comment.
Isaac Herzog, Israel's opposition leader, said the pope, a close friend of Israel, had sent a clear message to Netanyahu through the invitation. Speaking on Channel 2 TV, Herzog said the pope was essentially saying, "Do something. It can't go on like this."
Francis flew to Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, where he was warmly greeted by an honor guard. With trumpets blaring, the country's top officials lined up to shake his hand as he walked a red carpet.
Francis deplored Saturday's deadly shooting at Brussels' Jewish Museum as a "criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred." Two Israelis were among the dead.
He also condemned the Holocaust as the "enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink." Francis is to visit Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, on Monday.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report