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In a pilgrimage to Jesus's traditional birthplace, Pope Benedict XVI called Wednesday for the establishment of a Palestinian state and acknowledged Palestinian suffering during decades of Middle East turmoil.
The pontiff stood alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as he delivered his strongest public support yet for Palestinian statehood.
"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.
Benedict acknowledged the difficulties faced by the Palestinians, although he stopped short of singling out Israel for criticism.
"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.
"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," the pope continued. "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."
Earlier Wednesday, the pontiff's motorcade drove through a crossing in the security barrier to reach the cradle of Christianity.
Later, he was to tour the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional birth grotto, and visit a Palestinian refugee camp.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the pope's visit amounts to "a call to end injustice and end occupation."
Christians are a dwindling minority among Palestinians. Christians in Bethlehem say they hope the pope's visit will discourage further Christian emigration.