Pope's Israel spokesman: Pontiff won't visit Gaza

In Easter message, Benedict XVI comments on resolving Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fighting poverty.

pope benedict easter 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
pope benedict easter 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Graduate theological students at the University of California at Berkeley are leading a petition urging Pope Benedict XVI to visit Gaza during his trip to the Holy Land next month. While the Vatican has yet to make an official comment on the matter, the pope's spokesman in Israel, Wadie Abunasser, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that the pope would "absolutely" refrain from visiting Gaza during his upcoming trip, regardless of initiatives to convince him otherwise. "Gaza is not on the pope's itinerary, nor will it be," said Abunasser, who declined to speak at length, as he was celebrating Easter. "There will be no change in these plans, but I'll say it very clearly, the pope is absolutely not going to Gaza." Approximately 2,000 Catholics live in Gaza, and they have been harassed, often violently, since Hamas seized full control of the region in 2007. In June 2007, a Catholic convent and school were ransacked and religious articles and books were desecrated. Three months later, pipe bombs struck a Greek Orthodox Church, following comments made by Benedict that were interpreted as an insult to Islam. Nonetheless, the Jerusalem branch of the Roman Catholic Caritas charity organization has been promoting the Berkeley initiative, and the Church Times, a British-based Anglican Church weekly newspaper, reported that senior Catholic officials have asked Israel to allow Gaza Christians to leave Gaza for a mass to be led by the pope in Bethlehem. The international Caritas group campaigned against Israel during the IDF's Operation Cast Lead campaign in Gaza, blaming the IDF for endangering the lives of medical personnel and civilians. It also called for an end to rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas terrorists. Church Times also reported that most of the petition's signatories are Roman Catholics but that Muslims, Buddhists, humanists and atheists also have signed the petition. The petition states, "When we ask, 'Whose equal dignity is most unequally ignored?' or 'Whose equal rights are most unequally threatened?' the faces of the people in Gaza clearly arise.... "... we need to be willing to risk our lives without the protection of arms, and thus, to live by the loving wisdom of the cross and the divine hope of the resurrection. Such witness by Church leadership will inspire the Catholic faithful, particularly the young, to embrace their Church.... Such witness will also encourage other religious leaders to practice nonviolent peacemaking." The petition goes on to claim that "the people of Gaza have been suffering under unjust social systems" while Israelis are living in "fear, distrust, and uncertainty." In his Easter Sunday message, the pope said that reconciliation was the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and said the entire world needed to rediscover hope to end wars, poverty and financial turmoil. Speaking from the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica, Benedict said he would bring a message of hope and love to the region when he visits in a few weeks. "Reconciliation - difficult but indispensable - is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence, and it can only be achieved through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said. Benedict delivered his "Urbi et Orbi" speech - Latin for "to the city and the world" - at the end of his Easter Sunday Mass, attended by tens of thousands of people who packed St. Peter's Square and the boulevard leading up to it. AP contributed to this report