latin patriarch gaza 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The Holy Land's top Roman Catholic cleric assailed Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and urged Palestinians to heal their political rift in his first Christmas message on Tuesday.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal traveled to Gaza earlier this week to pray with the tiny Christian minority there, and used a news conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday to draw attention the plight of the territory's residents.
Just as Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional West Bank birthplace, waited for him, "so are we awaiting a manifestation of the Savior's grace that will put an end to the occupation and the injustice, delivering us from those fears, hardships and internal divisions that beset this land," Twal said.
The Jordanian-born cleric became the top Catholic leader in the Holy Land in June and is the second Palestinian to hold the post.
Israel has kept Gaza's borders nearly sealed since early November in response to frequent rocket fire by Gaza terrorists. This has led to shortages of many basic goods and twice forced the United Nations to suspend food aid distribution to the strip's neediest residents. Most now rely on goods smuggled in through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Some 4,000 of the 1.4 million Gazans are Christian. About 600 are Roman Catholic.
Wearing a black robe and purple cap and flanked by other Catholic leaders, Twal called on the international community to reach a "just and final peace in the Holy Land," and encouraged Palestinians to seek political reconciliation.
Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in June 2007, creating dueling governments there and in the West Bank, which is ruled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We also call upon the Palestinians themselves to return to unity in the context of a recognized Palestinian legal structure, and in this way to spare the people the continuing and degrading siege," Twal said.
Recent attempts to reconcile Hamas and Abbas loyalists have failed.
Twal also expressed concern about the Holy Land's Christian communities, saying their presence is threatened by emigration and political instability.
The Palestinian Christian population in the Holy Land has fallen below 2 percent in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - down from an estimated 15 percent in 1950.
Twal also prayed for the people of Iraq, saying foreign military occupation had turned the country into "a jungle of chaos, violence and terrorism."