BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Pope Benedict visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Wednesday to hammer home his calls for an independent Palestinian state and the lifting of Israel’s embargo on Gaza.
Cheers of “Long Live the Pope, Long Live Palestine” rose up as Benedict rode through the narrow ancient streets of Bethlehem to start his first visit as pontiff to Jesus’s birthplace.
Benedict saw the stark reality of the local situation when he was driven right beside a fortified watch tower through a sliding steel opening in a concrete section of the tall, snaking security barrier that separates the town from nearby Jerusalem.
“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 your neighbors, within internationally recognized borders,” he told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at an arrival ceremony shortly after the crossing.
The two-state solution is supported by Abbas, Arab nations and Western powers. But it is an issue on which new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been hesitant. It will be a focus of his talks next week with U.S. President Barack Obama.
In his address, Abbas denounced Israel’s “apartheid wall,” calling it part of efforts by the Jewish state to drive out Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land.
The Palestinian president spoke of “oppression, tyranny and land expropriation” and said Palestinians wanted a future with “no occupation, no checkpoints, no walls, no prisoners, no refugees.”
MANGER SQUARE MASS
A Palestinian flag nearly the size of an entire building hung before the pope as he said Mass for about 5,000 people in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity that marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born in a stable.
Applause broke out when he expressed concern for Palestinians in the Hamas Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip who suffered during an Israeli offensive in January. He said he was praying that Israel’s embargo on Gaza “will soon be lifted.”
He noted how strange it was that Bethlehem is associated with the joy and renewal of Jesus’s birth “yet here in our midst how far this magnificent promise seems from being realized.”
The square was packed with Palestinian Christians and several old women had tears in their eyes as the pope arrived.
“There are fewer and fewer of us Palestinian Christians but we have strength,” said Kandra Zreineh, a 45-year-old mother of four from a village near Bethlehem. “We are proud to have this visit because we are small and I believe he may be able to make a difference for us. I still believe in miracles.”
Thousands of Christians from Bethlehem have gone abroad since a Palestinian uprising from 2000 onwards saw an Israeli security clampdown and construction of the barrier that runs through and around the West Bank, restricting movement.
Abbas, who like most Palestinians is Muslim, described the hardships faced by his people, including the tens of thousands of Christians whose community is shrinking through emigration.
“On this Holy Land, there are those who continue to build separation walls, instead of bridges, and who try with the occupation forces to compel both Christians and Muslims alike to leave the country, so that our holy places change into mere archaeological sites, rather than places of worship, alive and bustling with believers,” Abbas said in Arabic.
“Jerusalem … is surrounded by the apartheid wall which prevents our people from the West Bank from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque,” he added.
In his arrival address, Benedict acknowledged Israel’s security concerns as well as Palestinian suffering, and urged people not to “resort to acts of violence or terrorism.”
The move to the West Bank may relieve Vatican officials of the strains that have dogged the German pope in Jerusalem, where Israeli leaders have complained that he did not express enough empathy and regret in remarks he made on Monday at the Yad Vashem memorial to the Jewish dead of the Holocaust.
The pope flies back to Rome on Friday.