Pope John Paul II today chose the birthplace of Christ to identify himself with the suffering of Palestinians and to express sympathy for their aspirations for statehood. The Roman Catholic pontiff delivered this message during a tour of Bethlehem, which included a Mass outside the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where, according to ancient tradition, Jesus was born.Shortly after being greeted by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Pope proclaimed at a welcoming ceremony: "No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is in the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long."Pope John Paul underlined his words by kissing a bowl of earth from the Palestinian-ruled town, held by a Palestinian boy and girl. This gesture is almost always undertaken by the Pope on arrival in a country, but had powerful symbolism for Palestinians seeking an independent and sovereign homeland here.However Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope's gesture did not imply recognition of a Palestinian state because independence had not yet been declared. "It would have been very strange if the Pope had not kissed the earth at the place where Christ was born,'' he said."The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquillity with the other peoples of this area," the Pope said, referring to Vatican statements dating back to 1984.In response, Arafat hailed what he clearly interpreted as papal support for the Palestinian right to an independent state. "The Palestinian people value highly your just positions in support of their cause and their rightful presence on their homeland ...

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