In West Bank, Pope Calls For Palestinian State Pope Benedict XVI continued his visit to the Mideast Wednesday, visiting the West Bank town of Bethlehem. There, he said he supported an independent Palestinian homeland and prayed for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
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In West Bank, Pope Calls For Palestinian State

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In West Bank, Pope Calls For Palestinian State

In West Bank, Pope Calls For Palestinian State

In West Bank, Pope Calls For Palestinian State

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Pope Benedict XVI continued his visit to the Mideast Wednesday, visiting the West Bank town of Bethlehem. There, he said he supported an independent Palestinian homeland and prayed for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Pope Benedict XVI visited the city of Bethlehem today in the West Bank. Until now, on his tour of the Middle East, the pope has tried to steer clear of controversy. But today was marked by his political statements. Here's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The pontiff arrived in Bethlehem through the towering barrier made of concrete slabs that divides Israel from this West Bank city, a stark reminder of the ongoing conflict here. Pope Benedict began his tour by telling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state. Even if at present the goal seems far from being realized, he said, I urge you and your people to keep alive the flame of hope.

It set the tone for the day. Far from shying away from the thorny issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the pope gave a series of political speeches.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thousands of Palestinian pilgrims greeted Pope Benedict in Manger Square, in front of the Church of the Nativity. They came from all over the West Bank, and Israel allowed a small delegation of a hundred of the Gaza Strip's Christians to attend the ceremony as well.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On a stage festooned with flowers, the pope presided over the pomp of the Catholic liturgy. But even during this religious ceremony, he used the homily to address the situation in Gaza. Late last year, Israel launched an offensive there to stop rocket attacks targeting Israeli communities. Palestinians say at least 1,400 Palestinians were killed, and parts of Gaza were left in ruins. Since the end of the offensive, Israel has blocked reconstruction materials from entering the territory.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: Please, be assured of (unintelligible), were for building which now lies ahead (unintelligible). This embargo will soon be lifted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elias Ouda(ph) is a 17-year-old Palestinian Christian high school student who attended the mass. He says he wants the pope to focus on the ills of the Israeli occupation.

Mr. ELIAS OUDA (Student): I'm Palestinian, but I'm Christian. He should do something for all Palestinians here. We are in serious situation, here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The most politically charged event came in the late afternoon. In the courtyard of a U.N.-funded school in Bethlehem's Aida Refugee Camp, the pope was treated to speeches, poems and even a dance number highlighting the Israeli occupation.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Palestinian officials deliberately chose Aida Refugee Camp to host the pope. Israel's barrier flanks the area, and it provided a stark visual backdrop for the pope's address. He said the barrier is a symbol of the stalemate the Israelis and Palestinians have reached.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: In a world where more and more borders are being opened up to trade, to travel, to (unintelligible) of peoples, to (unintelligible) exchanges, it is tragic to see wall still being erected.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In his final speech of the day, he went further. I have seen, he said, the wall that intrudes into your territories separating neighbors and dividing families. Although walls can be easily built, he continued, we all know they do not last forever. They can be taken down.

Almost every word the pope has uttered on this trip has been scrutinized. Many Israelis felt his speech at the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem did not go far enough in repudiating the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. The pope is a German, and was once a member of the Hitler youth movement. It remains to be seen whether or not Palestinians will feel the pope addressed their concerns during his visit. At the Aida Refugee Camp, though, Shiadi al-Bermi said he felt satisfied.

Mr. SHIADI AL-BERMI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think we succeeded in showing the pope the painful picture, he says. I think he understood our situation of imprisonment and suffering. But he says I don't think there's much the pope can do about it.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Bethlehem.

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