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Pope says time to tear down walls, build bridges for peace

Updated: May 14, 2009 09:52 AM GMT
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Visiting Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, on May 13, Pope Benedict XVI called for the removal of the walls of separation between Israelis and Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He appealed to the international community to renew its efforts to help both sides reach "a just and lasting peace" in the 61-year-old conflict.

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Gerard O´Connell

Pope Benedict is the third Pope to visit Bethlehem. Pope Paul VI came in 1964 and Pope John Paul II visited in 2000. Pope Benedict XVI came on the fifth day of his Holy Land visit, one devoted entirely to the Palestinian issue. Thousands of Palestinian Christians and many Muslims, as well as pilgrims from all continents, gave him a rapturous welcome when he arrived in his bulletproof pope-mobile in Manger Square, 100 meters from the birthplace of Jesus. "Viva il Papa! Viva Palestina!", "Benedetto, Benvenuto!" they chanted, as they waved Vatican and Palestinian flags under a warm sun and blue sky. The crowd was delighted that he had chosen this very difficult moment of their history to visit Bethlehem. Posters on the walls of the city said it all: "The Pope is our hope." The previous day, the Pope had shuttled between meetings with Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem, advocating dialogue and peace. He visited the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam´s holiest sites, and the Western Wall of the Temple, sacred to the Jews. He concelebrated mass in Latin with many priests from the Holy Land, while a Palestinian choir sang Arabic and Latin hymns, such as Adeste Fideles. The congregation applauded when, in his homily, the Pope greeted "the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza" and expressed sorrow at the hardship and suffering there and for the 1,300, including many children, killed in recent Israeli assaults on the enclave. The Church had asked for permits for 250 Christians from Gaza to attend his Mass but only 48 were allowed. The Pope embraced the parish priest from Gaza, Father Jorge Hernandez, an Argentinean, and asked him and the other pilgrims to send his greetings to those in Gaza. He expressed solidarity with the work of reconstruction after the war, and called for an end to the Israeli-imposed embargo on Gaza. The Palestinians applauded loudly. Above all else, the Pope encouraged the crowd to cultivate "a mindset for peace," based on justice, respect for rights and a commitment to cooperate for the common good. The Pope later visited the underground grotto in the nearby Basilica of the Nativity, where a 14-point silver star marks the place of Jesus´ birth. Many Asians were present at the Pope´s Mass including Vietnamese priest, Father Phero Tran Than Chung from Kontum, one of the many concelebrants, who was "praying for peace." A group of 30 Filipinos from Chicago, the United States, members of the lay group Couples for Christ, led by Jean de Guzman, also attended. Guzman spoke of her group´s delight at being there. "The Pope is our only hope for peace. He always brings peace, but it is up to us whether we open ourselves to his message," she said. Other Asians present included women Religious from India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, who work in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Gaza and other parts of the Holy Land. Sister Francine from Mindanao, a member of the Order of St. Brigid of Sweden, said that the Pope´s visit "is good for everyone in the Holy Land," not just Christians. "He´s coming with a message of peace, to promote peace, we are praying for him." Of the 20 members of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata´s Missionaries of Charity seen in Manger Square that day, four work in Bethlehem, four in a nearby town, six in Jerusalem, and six in Gaza, where they run a kindergarten, and homes for handicapped children and elderly women. "I´m happy the Pope has come, he is our father. He brings peace," said one nun who did not want to be named. An Indian sister from Orissa, who works in Bethlehem, said: "The Pope´s coming for peace, we are praying for him." Bethlehem is about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem with a population of around 35,000. By and large, Christians and Muslims live there together in peace. As the Pope entered the city, he could see clearly the towering so-called Security Wall, erected by the Israelis, that partly encircles the city preventing Palestinians from traveling between the city and Jerusalem. Israel says the wall is necessary to protect itself from Palestinian suicide bombers. It is about 700 kilometers long and is still being constructed. Welcoming the Pope, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, denounced "the Apartheid wall," as it is known in the Occupied Territories, and "those who continue to build separation walls, instead of bridges, and who try with occupation forces to compel both Christians and Muslims alike to leave the country," by various forms of repression against Palestinians. In speeches at Aida refugee camp, home to 5,000 Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Pope said he knows "how much" they "have suffered and continue to suffer" because of the conflict and that he prays every day for "a just and lasting peace" in their land. He endorsed their call for a Palestinian state, even though the new Israeli government appears opposed to the idea. Pope Benedict said, "The Holy See supports the rights 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." He added that he understood the frustration of young Palestinians but begged them not to give in to resentment or bitterness. "Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism," he urged. "Let what you have experienced renew your determination to build peace". He said the wall was "a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians have reached." "In a world where more and more borders are being opened up.... It is tragic to see walls still being built," he said. "It´s necessary above all to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, the barriers that we raise against our neighbor," he added. "On both sides of the wall," he said, "great courage is needed if fear and mistrust are to overcome, if the urge to retaliate for loss or injury is to be resisted. It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after many years of fighting." ------ Gerard O´Connell covers the Vatican as a correspondent for UCA News and other news organizations.

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