Pope prays to end Gaza embargo

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Pope Benedict XVI urged Israel Wednesday to lift its embargo on the strife-ridden Gaza Strip and told Palestinians that he supports their quest for a sovereign homeland.

“In a special way my heart goes out the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza,” the German pontiff said during a mass celebrated in Bethlehem’s Manger Square in one of the highlights of his delicate pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

“I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering that you have to endure. Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead, and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted.”

Some 6,000 people attended the mass at the little town where Jesus Christ was born. Many in the crowd chanted “Viva il Papa, viva la Palestina” (Long live the pope, long live Palestine) as the pope arrived and mounted a stage erected in front of Bethlehem’s peace center.

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The embattled Christian community in the Holy Land should “be a bridge of dialogue and constructive cooperation in the building of a culture of peace to replace the present stalemate of fear, aggression and frustration,” Benedict told the throng in his homily delivered under a scorching sun.

Earlier the pope had a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. “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,” the pontiff told Mr. Abbas. Benedict began his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Monday by calling for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

Palestinians hope the pope’s one day visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and to the birthplace of Jesus in particular, will draw attention to their plight under occupation by the Jewish state. However some Palestinian Christians have boycotted the pope’s visit, arguing that it was inappropriate for him to come to the Holy land so soon after the Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli criticism of the pope during his visit has focused on Jewish complaints he did not show enough sympathy for Jewish suffering in the Nazi Holocaust rather than his calls for a Palestinian state. A two-state solution is an objective supported by the United States, United Nations and the European Union, though not by the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been reluctant to accept the concept as a necessary outcome of negotiations.

Benedict was to travel later to the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem. To dramatize their situation, Palestinians set up a small open-air theater beside a concrete wall that forms part of the barrier Israel is building around the West Bank.

The Palestinians said they ignored Israeli orders not complete the theater and hope Benedict will use it when speaking at the refugee camp.

Israel says it needs the grim barrier of concrete in populated areas and razor wire elsewhere to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers.

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