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(photo credit: AP)
BETHLEHEM - Pope Benedict XVI marked his one-day visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday by declaring his support for a "sovereign Palestinian homeland" and calling for the end of the blockade on the Gaza Strip.
In a speech at the Palestinian Authority's "presidential palace" in the city and later at Manger Square, the pope called the West Bank security barrier "tragic" and pledged support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that would peacefully exist alongside Israel.
"Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached - the wall," Benedict said. "In a world where more and more borders are being opened up - to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges - it is tragic to see walls still being erected."
Palestinians expressed deep satisfaction with the pope's statements and his tour of the nearby Aida refugee camp, where he was photographed near the security barrier.
They said they hoped the visit would pave the way for the arrival of pilgrims and tourists - a move that would boost the economy in this tourist city.
Some Christian residents also expressed hope that the visit would stop Christian families from abandoning the city in favor of new lives in the US, Canada and Europe.
Addressing PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the pope said: "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. 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 that "just and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East can only be achieved through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, in which the rights and dignity of all are acknowledged and upheld."
The pope appealed for progress on several fronts, including the reconstruction of destroyed homes in the Gaza Strip, an easing of Israeli security restrictions on Palestinian movement, and cessation of Palestinian attacks on Israel.
"I call on the international community to bring its influence to bear in favor of a solution," he said. "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."
Addressing a group of about 100 Christians from the Gaza Strip who were permitted to travel to Bethlehem for the event, the pope voiced sympathy for their plight and expressed hope that Israel would lift the blockade that has been in effect since Hamas came to power in Gaza almost two years ago.
"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," the pontiff said.
He also called on Palestinian youths to "have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism."
He said that he hoped improved security would "allow greater freedom of movement" for the Palestinians.
"Palestinians, like any other people, have a natural right to marry, to raise families, and to have access to work, education and health care," the pope said.
Upon his arrival from Jerusalem, Benedict was greeted by Abbas, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, as well as scores of senior PA officials and Christian and Muslim dignitaries.
Some 4,000 PA policemen were deployed throughout the city and its surroundings as part of an unprecedented security operation to protect the pope and his entourage.
Many streets were closed to private and public transportation by police officers armed with rifles.
Posters featuring Benedict and Abbas appeared on many buildings, and large banners in Arabic and English welcomed the pope as "our hope." Gold and white Vatican flags decorated almost all the main streets.
The tough security measures did not stop thousands of Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, from converging on Manger Square to attend a mass held by the pontiff.
PA security officials and local journalists estimated that nearly 25,000 people showed up.
"This is an historic day," said shopkeeper Ramzi Bandak. "We hope that the pope's visit to Bethlehem will encourage Christian pilgrims and tourists to come here."
Teacher Hanan Awad said she was worried by the sharp decrease in the number of Christians living in the Bethlehem area. "I hope this phenomenon will now stop or slow down," said the Christian mother of three. "We want the Christians who left Bethlehem to return home. Perhaps the pope's visit will encourage them to return."
In his welcoming remarks, Abbas called for ending the suffering of the Palestinians by establishing an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital next to Israel, the return of the refugees to their original homes inside Israel in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the implementation of the Arab peace initiative.
"We have been suffering since the Nakba [catastrophe] 61 years ago," Abbas said. "Our people are continuing to demand peace and justice."
He criticized Israel for building the security barrier.
"On this holy land they are erecting separation walls instead of connecting bridges," he said.
Abbas also accused Israel of working to drive Christians and Muslims out of the country so that it could turn the holy places into archeological sites for tourism.
The Palestinians attached symbolic significance to the pontiff's visit to the Aida refugee camp, home to 5,000 refugees, because of its proximity to the security barrier.
Camp residents said they hoped that scenes of Benedict with the nine-meter high concrete slabs surrounding their community would highlight the hardships they have been facing since the wall was built.
PA spokesmen exploited the pope's visit to the camp to reiterate the "right of return" for Palestinians to their former villages inside Israel.
"Until when will our people continue to live as refugees?" asked Issa Qaraqi, a resident of the camp who heads the Palestinian Prisoners Club in the West Bank. "We want to go back to our homes."
He pointed out that the pope's visit to the refugee camp coincided with the 61st anniversary of the Nakba. During the pope's tour of aida, children released 61 black balloons into the air to express their sadness over the Nakba.