In Bethlehem, Pope calls for Palestinian state
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Pope Benedict XVI made a powerful plea Wednesday for a Palestinian state, mixing prayer and politics at Jesus’ birthplace and expressing solidarity at a refugee camp with “all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace.”
At the Aida refugee camp, the pope spoke in the shadow of the massive concrete barrier that divides Israelis and Palestinians and urged both sides to resist the urge for revenge and find the courage needed for peace.
The high-profile visit provided a forum for Palestinians to vent their rage over the Israeli occupation, and Benedict said he understood their frustration.
But he urged young people in particular to “have the courage to resist any temptation to resort to acts of violence or terrorism,” his first mention of terrorism since he began his Middle East tour last Friday.
At each stop during his 10-hour stay in the West Bank, Benedict said much of what the Palestinians were hoping to hear, including giving assurances of his “deep compassion and remembrance in prayer” for those killed by the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
Arriving in Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem, Benedict, 82, was driven through a gate in the 25-foot-high concrete wall, part of the separation barrier Israel has erected along the West Bank and calls key to its security.
“Our pope is our hope” read posters hung around the town, also dotted with yellow and cream flags of the Vatican and red, black, white and green Palestinian flags.
At the nearby Aida refugee camp, the pope said the looming barbed wire and concrete structure served as a “stark reminder” of the tense situation.
The refugee camp, where about 5,000 Palestinians live, is next to the towering wall, and residents had wanted Benedict to speak from a stage next to it to highlight life under Israeli occupation.
But the Israeli government ordered a halt to construction of the stage, saying organizers lacked the necessary permits and the site’s proximity to the wall posed a security risk.
“Even if walls can easily be built, we know they don’t last forever. They can be demolished,” the German-born pontiff told the crowd.
“First of all, however, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts,” he said. Israel constructed the barrier to keep out Palestinian attackers, but Palestinians object because it cuts them off from Jerusalem and juts into their land.
Benedict regretted the reality that led to its construction.
“In a world where more and more borders are being opened up … it is tragic to see walls still being erected,” he said. “How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built.” Referring to the pope’s remarks, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said: “We did not want to build a security barrier. We were forced to by the continuous infiltration of suicide bombers entering our country and murdering our people. We wish the reality were different.”
At the refugee camp, a group of Palestinian children in traditional dress danced for the pope, first to the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and then to an upbeat song in Arabic, as scenes of the West Bank played on huge screens behind them.
Some of the children held oversized black keys — a symbol associated with the homes refugees left behind during the two-year war that followed Israel’s creation in 1948. One of the most sensitive issues in Israel-Palestinian negotiations has been the demand that Palestinians be allowed to return to property in what is now Israel.