00 5/13/2009 1:26 PM


The papal convoy passes through the Isareli security wall into Bethlehem as the Pope began a day devoted to the Palestinian Territories.

President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the Pope in official rites held at hiw Bethlehem presidential residence.

Pope Benedict XVI endorses
independent Palestinian state
and empathizes with suffering


BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Standing in the cradle of Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI told Palestinians on Wednesday that he understands their suffering and offered his strongest public backing yet for an independent Palestinian state.

To get to Jesus's traditional birthplace of Bethlehem, Benedict had to cross through towering concrete slabs, part of a separation barrier Israel has erected to wall off the West Bank's Palestinian areas.

"Mr. President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders," the Pontiff said upon his arrival, standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It was the third day of Benedict's Holy Land pilgrimage meant largely to boost interfaith relations. But so far, it has been fraught with political land mines.

Israelis have criticized the German-born Pope for failing to adequately express remorse for the Holocaust, while the Palestinians are pressing him to draw attention to the difficult conditions of life under Israeli rule.

The Pope also called for a Palestinian homeland when he arrived in Israel on Monday for the five-day visit. [The reports should mention that he has always done so - in all his statements about the Middle East. It is not as if he is only saying this on the occasion of this visit!]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the audience, says Palestinians are not ready to rule themselves and he has resisted international pressure to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In Bethlehem, Benedict delivered a special message of solidarity to the 1.4 million Palestinians isolated in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. He has no plans to visit Gaza.

Israel recently waged a three-week war against Gaza militants that killed more than 1,000 people and badly damaged thousands of homes. The war compounded suffering already caused by an Israel and Egyptian blockade of Gaza's borders since Hamas wrested control of Gaza two years ago.

"In a special way, my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure," the Pope told thousands of Palestinians who packed an open-air Mass in Manger Square, some hoisting Palestinian and Vatican flags and pictures of the pontiff and Jesus.

"Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead, and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted," he added.

In a gesture for the Pope's visit, Israel allowed nearly 100 members of Gaza's tiny Christian community to travel to the West Bank through Israeli territory that separates the two Palestinian areas.

Benedict's singling out of Gaza "means that Gaza is in the Pope's heart," said George Hernandez, bishop of the Holy Family Catholic church in Gaza City. "This a very courageous speech and we are satisfied."

The Pope, who has described himself as a "pilgrim of peace," has been forced to navigate some of the touchiest political issues as he makes his way through Israel and the West Bank — his first visit to the region as the head of the Roman Catholic church.

On Tuesday, the Vatican rallied to his defense, describing him as a man of strong anti-Nazi credentials and a peacemaker after critics said he failed to apologize in a speech at Israel's Holocaust memorial for what they see as Catholic indifference during the Nazi genocide.

The Palestinians want the Pontiff to put pressure on Israel during his visit. Before he arrived, Bethlehem residents expressed hope that he would use his moral authority to support their quest for independence.

"Our Pope is our hope" read posters hung around the town, which was also dotted with the yellow and cream flags of the Vatican and red, black, white and green Palestinian flags.

While Benedict acknowledged Palestinian difficulties, he stopped short of blaming Israel.

"I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades," he said.

Abbas invoked the concrete separation barrier and the occupation in his greeting to the Pontiff.

"In this Holy Land, the occupation still continues building separation walls," Abbas said. "Instead of building the bridge that can link us, they are using the force of occupation to force Muslims and Christians to emigrate."

He and other Palestinian dignitaries later donned baseball caps imprinted with the black-and-white kaffiyeh headscarf, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

Israel says it has been building the barrier of concrete slabs and electronic fences, which stretches for hundreds of miles (kilometers) along the frontier with the West Bank, to keep out Palestinian militants.

Attacks have fallen off sharply[In fact, when was the last terrorist attack in Israel since the fence came up? Imagine what it would be like if the situation were reversed and Palestine had Israel's military might!][/DIM], but Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab because it juts into the West Bank at multiple points, placing about 10 percent of the territory on the "Israeli" side. [That is unfortunate, and even incosiderate ,but perhaps dictated by topography; the said land is vacant frontier area, and the fence is not intended to be permanent.]

Christians are a tiny minority among the 3.9 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a trend seen throughout the Middle East, their numbers have dwindled as Palestinians weary of occupation seek out new opportunities abroad.

"When he comes and visits us, it gives us moral and material support," said Ramzi Shomali, a 27-year-old electric company worker. "It motivates us to stay in our land, and he will see our situation and will use his power for our good."

Victor Batarseh, Bethlehem's Christian mayor, said he hoped the papal mission would "encourage Palestinian Christians to be steadfast on their land and encourage them to stay."

The Pontiff brought several gifts to Bethlehem, including a ventilator for a baby hospital and a mosaic representation of the birth of Jesus. He received a handwritten Gospel of Luke.

After meeting with Abbas, Benedict was to tour the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition holds Jesus was born, then visit a Palestinian refugee camp.

(Associated Press writers Victor Simpson, Dalia Nammari and Ben Hubbard contributed to this report)

Mr President,
Dear Friends,

I greet all of you from my heart, and I warmly thank the President, Mr Mahmoud Abbas, for his words of welcome.

My pilgrimage to the lands of the Bible would not be complete without a visit to Bethlehem, the City of David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Nor could I come to the Holy Land without accepting the kind invitation of President Abbas to visit these Territories and to greet the Palestinian people.

I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades. My heart goes out to all the families who have been left homeless. This afternoon I will pay a visit to the Aida Refugee Camp, in order to express my solidarity with the people who have lost so much.

To those among you who mourn the loss of family members and loved ones in the hostilities, particularly the recent conflict in Gaza, I offer an assurance of deep compassion and frequent remembrance in prayer.

Indeed, I keep all of you in my daily prayers, and I earnestly beg the Almighty for peace, a just and lasting peace, in the Palestinian Territories and throughout the region.

Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.

Even if at present that goal seems far from being realized, I urge you and all your people to keep alive the flame of hope, hope that a way can be found of meeting the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for peace and stability.

In the words of the late Pope John Paul II, there can be “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness” (Message for the 2002 World Day of Peace).

I plead with all the parties to this long-standing conflict to put aside whatever grievances and divisions still stand in the way of reconciliation, and to reach out with generosity and compassion to all alike, without discrimination.

Just and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East can only be achieved through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, in which the rights and dignity of all are acknowledged and upheld.

I ask all of you, I ask your leaders, to make a renewed commitment to work towards these goals. In particular I call on the international community to bring its influence to bear in favor of a solution.

Believe and trust that through honest and persevering dialogue, with full respect for the demands of justice, lasting peace really can be attained in these lands.

It is my earnest hope that the serious concerns involving security in Israel and the Palestinian Territories will soon be allayed sufficiently to allow greater freedom of movement, especially with regard to contact between family members and access to the holy places. Palestinians, like any other people, have a natural right to marry, to raise families, and to have access to work, education and health care.

I pray too that, with the assistance of the international community, reconstruction work can proceed swiftly wherever homes, schools or hospitals have been damaged or destroyed, especially during the recent fighting in Gaza.

This is essential if the people of this land are to live in conditions conducive to lasting peace and prosperity. A stable infrastructure will provide your young people with better opportunities to acquire valuable skills and to seek gainful employment, enabling them to play their part in building up the life of your communities.

I make this appeal to the many young people throughout the Palestinian Territories today: do not allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts.

Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism. Instead, let what you have experienced renew your determination to build peace.

Let it fill you with a deep desire to make a lasting contribution to the future of Palestine, so that it can take its rightful place on the world stage.

Let it inspire in you sentiments of compassion for all who suffer, zeal for reconciliation, and a firm belief in the possibility of a brighter future.

Mr President, dear friends gathered here in Bethlehem, I invoke upon all the Palestinian people the blessings and the protection of our heavenly Father, and I pray fervently that the song which the angels sang here in this place will be fulfilled: peace on earth, good will among men. Thank you. And may God be with you.

The Pope proceeded by Popemobile from the presidential residence to Manger Square where he said Mass.

Arriving at Manger Square, where he robed for Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/15/2009 4:15 AM]