- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Pope John Paul II journeyed to the cradle of Christianity yesterday, knelt at the traditional spot of Jesus' birth and kissed a golden bowl of Palestinian soil, a highly charged gesture seen by Palestinians as a recognition of their dreams for statehood.

The day in Bethlehem the city John Paul said was at the heart of his pilgrimage had a strong spiritual note. In Manger Square, near Jesus' traditional birth grotto in the Church of the Nativity, a golden-clad pontiff leaning on a silver staff celebrated Mass before thousands of faithful.

Later, he descended into the grotto and knelt before the star marking the spot where Mary is believed to have given birth. In the soft glow of candles, the pope sat in silence as his aides respectfully slipped out of the grotto.

Despite the Vatican's portrayal of the papal trip as purely spiritual, the pope touched on contentious issues of clear consequence to the region. He kissed a bowl of Palestinian soil a gesture normally reserved for sovereign states and walked hand in hand in Dheisheh with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

As the beaming Mr. Arafat looked on, the pontiff proclaimed Palestinians' "natural right to a homeland" and visited a camp for refugees exiled from their homes since the 1948 Mideast war.

Soon after he left, Palestinian frustrations turned violent: Hundreds of camp residents hurled stones at baton-wielding Palestinian police in a battle that lasted for nearly half an hour.

Police at the Dheisheh camp pushed the protesters back but then retreated under a hail of rocks. Some minor injuries were reported in the melee, a show of dissatisfaction with Palestinian leadership and the slow pace of peace.

Earlier in the day, John Paul called for international action to end Palestinian suffering.

"Your torment is before the eyes of the world," he declared. "And it has gone on for too long."

After meeting Mr. Arafat, the pope traveled in his bulletproof "popemobile" to Manger Square for an ecstatic welcome. Along the route, Palestinian girls tossed flowers, festooning the hood of the popemobile. In the square, draped with Palestinian and Vatican flags, shouts of "Viva Baba!" rang out. Baba is the Arabic adaptation of the word father, or papa.

Clad in a golden robe, John Paul waved his hand in greeting and blessed the crowd, saying "Peace be upon you" in Arabic. As organ strains signaled the start of Mass, he leaned heavily on his silver staff, bowing his head in solemn prayer.

Hands trembling as he preached from a tentlike altar between an ancient church and a modern mosque, the pope said Bethlehem lay "at the heart" of his millennium pilgrimage, a visit he had hoped to make as far back as Christmas 1978, two months after he assumed the papacy.

"This is a place that has known the yoke and the rod of oppression," John Paul said. "How often has the cry of innocents been heard in these streets?"

As the pope finished his homily, the Muslim call to prayer rang out from a mosque in the square, the first such interruption of a papal Mass. The crowd and the pontiff alike waited silently for the call to prayer to end. A few fidgeted uncomfortably, and a nun shook her head in apparent disbelief.

A moment later, the crowd applauded when Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, spoke of the juxtaposition of Islamic and Christian prayers as symbolizing unity between the two faiths. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls later said the overlapping of prayers in the square was "mutual and respectful."

Earlier, the Palestinians greeted John Paul with conscious symbols of statehood as his Israeli Black Hawk helicopter touched down under chilly gray skies near Mr. Arafat's presidential palace.

In his arrival speech, the pope referred to "legitimate Palestinian aspirations" and the need for peaceful negotiations to realize them.

"The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have a natural right to a homeland," the pope said, speaking in a slurred voice a symptom of Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder.

Mr. Navarro-Valls parried suggestions the pope was endorsing a Palestinian state, saying that such a state has not yet been proclaimed and that the Vatican would consider the issue when that happened.

Independence wishes were also being showcased at Dheisheh, where the pope spent an hour examining the cramped living conditions of 10,000 refugees from the 1948 Mideast war.

The visit sounded a cheerful note. A crowd of several hundred, gathered in a courtyard of a boys' school, cheered and applauded as the pope and Mr. Arafat walked hand in hand onto the stage.

But the violence erupted after they left. Witnesses said police trying to push back curious onlookers beat several of them. In response, an angry crowd hurled stones at police officers, who beat stone throwers with clubs. Some officers hurled stones back during the battle.

Abdel Rahman Ahmar, a leader of a radical PLO faction, said the camp's anger was directed both at Mr. Arafat and at the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, from which he said refugees have reaped no benefits.

"This is not Palestinians against Palestinians," Mr. Ahmar said. "This is Palestinians against the Palestinian Authority."

While Mr. Arafat has permitted some dissent, he has cracked down hard on direct expressions of criticism of his leadership, arresting opponents and closing newspapers.

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