Pope decries Israeli wall

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank | Pope Benedict XVI visited a Palestinian refugee camp Wednesday in the West Bank and condemned an Israeli wall overshadowing the facility as “a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached.”

The visit climaxed a day in which the pontiff also urged Israel to end its embargo of the Gaza Strip.

The pope watched Palestinian children in traditional costumes performing a musical dramatizing their lives on a stage constructed in sight of the 33-foot-high concrete wall and an Israeli watchtower facing the Aida refugee camp housing about 5,000 refugees.

“Towering over us is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached - the wall,” Benedict said in a speech to some 1,500 refugees and Palestinian officials.

“In a world where more and more borders are being opened up - to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges - it is tragic to see walls still being erected,” he added.

“On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome,” the pope said. “It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after years of fighting.”

The pope’s visit to the camp capped a day in which he reiterated his call for an independent Palestinian state after receiving a warm welcome in Bethlehem that contrasted with the mixture of hostility and indifference that marked his stops in Israel earlier in the week during his delicate pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

During a Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the pope urged Israel to lift its embargo on the strife-torn Gaza Strip.

“In a special way my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza,” the German pontiff said. “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.”

About 6,000 people attended the Mass at the little town where Christians believe 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 at the venue in front of Bethlehem’s peace center.

The pope began his day meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his palace 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 started 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 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 papal visit, saying it is inappropriate so soon after the Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli criticism of the pope during his visit has focused on his purportedly not showing enough sympathy for Jewish suffering in the Nazi Holocaust rather than on his calls for a Palestinian state, 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.

On Thursday, the pope travels from Jerusalem to Nazareth in the region of Galilee, where Jesus is believed to have preached and developed much of his message of the Gospel.

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