Pope Calls For Palestinian State While In West Bank
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Pope Benedict is in Bethlehem today. He's in the West Bank for a one day visit that is part of a week-long tour of the region. Palestinian officials are hoping the pope's presence will draw attention to their lives under Israeli rule. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from Bethlehem's Manger's Square, where the pope has finished saying mass.
And Lourdes, what have you seen today?
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I have to say, the atmosphere has been very festive. In front of me is a sea of pilgrims. They have come from the West Bank. They have even been allowed to leave Gaza and attend this mass here today in front of the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites for Christianity.
Pilgrims that I've spoken to, Christian Palestinians, have given different messages. They say that they really hope that the pope's message here today shows the plight that they live under, some of them saying that they are Palestinian before they're Christian and the Israeli occupation is the most important thing for them.
Others have stressed the fact that they hope that the pope's visit will cement the ties of Christians in this area, because, as you know, many Christians have been leaving over the years. And the Christian community in the West Bank and Gaza has been dwindling dramatically.
INSKEEP: Well, what's the significance of the pope's decision to visit this area that was occupied by Israel in a war in 1967?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean, as you know, everything becomes political. And so the first statement that he made as he walked into Bethlehem, he stood there with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and he said, I urge you to keep the flame of hope alive. The Holy See supports an eventual Palestinian state. So his messages was political. He told them that he really would like to see some day Palestine become a country, with recognized - internationally recognized borders.
He also spoke about Gaza. And this was the one time during his homily, the sermon that he gives during the mass, that people actually stopped and clapped. He said his heart went out to war-torn Gaza and that his prayers were with all the people that had died in that conflict.
He also called for reconstruction to begin and for reconstruction materials to be allowed into Gaza, because those borders have been shut by Israel and reconstruction materials have not been allowed in.
So a lot of political undertones to this trip in the West Bank.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask a little more about that. You mentioned that there's a dwindling number of Christians where you are. The vast majority of people are Muslim, or within the borders of Israel, Jewish. Do people nevertheless pay close attention to what this pope says? Do his words have impact?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: His words have enormous impact. While he was in Israel, statements that he made about the Holocaust have had people talking for days. Some said that he did not show the right degree of warmth and empathy towards what had happened during the Holocaust when six million Jews were murdered. And obviously he is German and his background, they say, makes it even more important for him to have issued those kinds of statements.
Here, speaking to Palestinians, what they are looking for, they say, is a very clear condemnation of the Israeli occupation. Later today he will be going to Aida refugee camp, which is located right next to the Israeli security barrier that separates the occupied Palestinian territories from Israel. And what he says there will be very important. We're expecting to hear him talk about his solidarity with displaced Palestinians. And that is expected to be very important. Every word will be looked over very, very carefully.
INSKEEP: Lourdes, it's sounding rather busy where you are. What are you seeing now?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The entire area has been packed. People have been coming in all day. A lot of security. People have been having to go through metal detectors to get here. And of course many pilgrims have come from Europe and farther abroad.
But the message here that he's given today has been for the Palestinian Christians. He really did speak to them, saying please do not leave this land, it's important that you stay here, that you remain here. And many Palestinian Christians that I spoke to said this was a message they really wanted to hear.
INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on the West Bank. Thanks very much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.
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