Pope calls for Palestinian homeland in West Bank

Pope Benedict XVI called on Wednesday for a Palestinian homeland and urged youths to resist temptation for "terrorism" in his first trip to the occupied West Bank.

Pilgrims wait for the start of a mass by Pope Benedict XVI at Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP Photo)

"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 at the welcoming ceremony in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The pope spoke after passing through an imposing checkpoint in Israel's controversial eight-metre-(25-foot-)high wall that surrounds a section of Bethlehem and forms part of a barrier that Israel says is essential to its security but which the Palestinians see as a symbol of an "apartheid" regime.

In the midst of an eight-day Holy Land pilgrimage, the pope reiterated his call for peace to come to the land torn by decades of violence.

"In particular I call on the international community to bring its influence to bear in favour of a solution."

And he appealed to young people living in the Palestinian territories not to "allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts.

"Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism. Instead, let what you have experienced renew your determination to build peace."

Welcoming the 82-year-old pontiff, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas slammed the 42-year Israeli occupation and the severe restrictions on movement faced by his people in their lands.

"In this holy land there are those who continue to build separation walls instead of bridges and who try to compel Muslims and Christians to leave the country," Abbas said.

"Your holiness is fully aware of the situation in Jerusalem which is surrounded by an apartheid wall which fordbids our people in the West Bank from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al-Aqsa mosque," Abbas said, referring to the main Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Thousands of people filled Manger Square just outside the Basilica of the Nativity, which Christians believe stands over the spot where the Jesus was born and where the pontiff later celebrated mass.

The pope also offered "deep compassion" to the victims of Israel's recent deadly war in Gaza, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis in December-January.

"To those among you who mourn the loss of family members and loved ones in the hostilities, particularly the recent conflict in Gaza, I offer an assurance of deep compassion and frequent remembrance in prayer," he said.

Security was beefed up to ensure the safety of the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics on his first official visit to the Palestinian territories and Israel, with hundreds of law enforcement officers lining the streets.

The pope, who on Tuesday said he felt the pain of those in the Holy Land who suffered "the bitter experiences of displacement," will also visit the Aida camp outside Bethlehem, where some 4,600 refugees live.

Aida residents hope the pontiff's visit will draw the world's attention to their demands to return to the 43 villages they or their parents once called home in what today is Israel, demands rejected by the Jewish state.

The United Nations estimates the number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants at 4.6 million.

The pope will meet Aida residents at a UN-run primary school in the shadow of the separation barrier, a series of concrete walls, fences and barbed wire that snakes its way for hundreds of kilometres (miles), mostly within the West Bank.

The pope, who appealed for Middle East peace based on a two-state solution on his arrival in Israel on Monday, was hold talks with Abbas at the presidential palace after visit to the refugee camp.

The pope will pray at the underground cave in the Basilica of the Nativity, where a 14-pointed silver star marks the exact spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

The basilica was built in 565 on the site of a 4th century church. It is administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities.

The pontiff will also visit a maternity hospital run by the Catholic aid agency Caritas.

Source: AFP

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