Written by Gregg Brekke
Tens of thousands of the faithful turned out in Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s boyhood, May 14, 2009, when Pope Benedict took his Holy Land pilgrimage to the heartland of Israel’s minority Arab population.
Standing in the city of Jesus' birth that's now under Palestinian control, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday (May 13) forcefully endorsed the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.
"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," Benedict said as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood at his side.
Benedict spoke at a festive outdoor Mass in Manger Square before an estimated crowed of 10,000 local Catholics and pilgrims.
While it was not the first time the pope has called for Palestinian self-determination, his remarks seemed to carry extra weight because they were spoken on Palestinian soil.
During the Mass, the pope acknowledged "the loss, the hardship, and the suffering" of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where Israel has imposed an embargo in an attempt to isolate the Hamas-led government.
The statement is unlikely to sit well with recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes that Palestinians lack the political maturity to run a peaceful country.
The pope and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Thursday in Nazareth, where Jesus spent his youth.
A Palestinian state is just one of the many controversial issues the pope has tackled since embarking on a week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The trip, officially billed as a "pastoral journey," has seemed at times more like a political minefield.
In a land sacred to three faiths, each with its own religious, political and territorial claims, even the act of traveling from one place to the other was laden with political overtones.
To reach Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem, the pope traveled through an Israeli checkpoint within the towering cement wall that Israel says is necessary to prevent terrorists from entering Israel. The barrier, which separates much of the West Bank from Israel, and which Palestinians call "the apartheid wall," has virtually stopped terror attacks, but has also sealed Palestinians inside the West Bank.
"In this Holy Land, the occupation still continues building separation walls," Abbas told the pope. "Instead of building the bridge that can link us, they are using the force of occupation to force Muslims and Christians to emigrate."
The sensitive issue of Palestinian refugees was also on the pope's agenda Wednesday during a visit to the Aida refugee camp next to Bethlehem that is home to about 5,000 people.
For the Palestinians, refugee camps are symbols of national suffering, and foreign leaders are encouraged to visit them. Israel insists that the refugees could have received permanent homes decades ago but the camps are maintained for propaganda purposes.
Speaking to the camp's mostly Muslim residents, the pope said his visit provided "a welcome opportunity to express my solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace, or to live permanently in a homeland of their own."
It is "understandable," he continued, "that you often feel frustrated. Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state, remain unfulfilled. Instead you find yourselves trapped, as so many in this region and throughout the world are trapped, in a spiral of violence, of attack and counter-attack, retaliation, and continual destruction."
The separation barrier, Benedict said, "is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached. ... How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built."
The pope urged the international community to recommit itself to a peaceful solution, but conceded that "diplomatic efforts can only succeed if Palestinians and Israelis themselves are willing to break free from the cycle of aggression."
At the outdoor Mass locals mingled with pilgrims from dozens of nations. Christian school children, who had the day off from school, stood on tip-toe to get a better view of "Baba," the Father.
"We're happy the Holy Father is here but we want him to really understand what our lives are like," said Khalil Sha'ar, a local Catholic. "The roads our closed. We can't pray in Jerusalem and it's difficult to see our relatives in nearby villages. We pray the pope's visit will make a difference."