Pope offers symbolic backing for Palestinians

STANDING in the cradle of Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI told Palestinians yesterday he understood their suffering and offered his strongest and most symbolic public backing yet for an independent Palestinian state.

To get to Jesus’s traditional birthplace of Bethlehem, Benedict crossed through the towering concrete slabs of the separation barrier that Israel has erected to wall off the West Bank’s Palestinian areas.

On a visit to a nearby refugee camp, he expressed regret over Israel’s construction of the separation barrier. A section of the barrier, fortified by an Israeli military watchtower, provided a stark backdrop as he spoke.

In Bethlehem, he offered a prayer for Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza.

But he also urged young Palestinians to “have the courage to resist any temptation to resort to acts of violence or terrorism”.

It was his first direct mention of terrorism since he arrived in Jordan last Friday on a Holy Land pilgrimage aimed at inspiring peace and strengthening frayed ties with Muslims and Jews.

At the Aida refugee camp, the Pope said it was understandable that Palestinians feel frustrated.

“Their legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state, remain unfulfilled,” he said.

Benedict’s first visit to Bethlehem since becoming pope took on increased significance as he endorsed the idea of a homeland while standing on Palestinian soil.

“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 neighbours, within internationally recognised borders,” he said, standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Benedict’s Holy Land pilgrimage was meant largely to boost interfaith relations.

But, so far, it has been fraught with political landmines.

Israelis have criticised 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the audience, has resisted international pressure to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu is to meet the Pope today.

At an open-air mass near Jesus’s traditional birth grotto, 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.

“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 Manger Square.

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