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In Bethlehem, Pope Urges Lifting of Gaza Embargo
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BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Pope Benedict XVI traveled Wednesday to this town that Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus, telling Palestinians that after decades of suffering, they had a right to a sovereign homeland “in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.”

Confronting the region’s political tripwires, he evoked “the loss, the hardship and the suffering” of Palestinians in war-torn Gaza, saying he prayed for the lifting of the economic embargo that Israel has imposed there since the militant group Hamas took control in 2007.

And, speaking in the presence of President Mahmoud Abbas before offering a mass in a sunlit Manger Square, he also urged young Palestinians to “have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.”

The preoccupation with Palestinian issues served, however briefly, to shift the focus away from what some Israelis have considered to be controversial questions surrounding the papal visit — the German pope’s record as a youth in the Nazi era and criticism of a speech he made at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Monday.

While his words on Palestinian statehood reflected Vatican policy, and followed a similar endorsement two days ago, they gained added weight from his presence here — the first time he has ventured into the West Bank since he arrived in Israel on Monday from Jordan on his first Middle East journey as pope. As with the rest of his tour, the visit carried a heavy political charge.

President Abbas used the opportunity to assail Israel’s separation barrier with Palestinian areas as “the apartheid wall which forbids our people from the West Bank” from reaching Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The pope’s motorcade passed through the barrier to reach Bethlehem.

Israel started building the separation barrier in 2002, saying that it was necessary to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities. Military officials insist that it has saved hundreds of Israeli lives. But much of it runs through West Bank land, across the pre-1967 armistice lines.

Most of the barrier is made up of a wire fence flanked by barbed wire, a trench and patrol roads. In some urban areas, particularly around Jerusalem, it takes the form of a towering concrete wall.

In his address, the pope, who planned to visit a Palestinian refugee camp later, said: “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.”

He said the Vatican “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.”

He added: “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.”

While the pope’s call for a Palestinian state matches the Obama administration’s public support for a two-state solution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been reported by Israeli officials as saying such a state is a long way off because Palestinian institutions and economic development required a great deal of work — as well as investment from Arab states — and that Palestinian education and public discourse needed to be more oriented toward coexistence. Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the hawkish Likud party, has refrained from endorsing a two-state solution.

At the mass in Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity stands on the site that Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus, the pope referred indirectly to Israel’s 22-day war in Gaza in December and January, saying that “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.”

“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 said.

While thousands of people thronged the square, the overall number of Christians in the faith’s biblical homeland has fallen sharply in recent years. In 1948, for instance, Jerusalem was about one-fifth Christian. Now it is two percent. And, across the Middle East, a region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said an estimated 10,000 people attended the mass, including 100 Christians from Gaza, whom the pope greeted personally after the service. The Israeli authorities had eased restrictions to permit the group to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, news reports said.

by Rachel Donadio

Source >
  NYT | May 13

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