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 as a sovereign and independent people," Arafat said. This display of gratitude was repeated by Palestinian children, who shouted their greeting—"John Paul II, we love you"—as he arrived in Manger Square to celebrate Mass. Girls with baskets of flowers threw blossoms into the path of John Paul's bullet-proof "popemobile," and nuns climbed up ladders to catch a glimpse of him. Later, the pontiff visited the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, home to 10 000 Palestinians in an area no greater than half-a-square kilometer. The Pope told the camp's residents to take heart from the fact that they were living in Bethlehem, the setting of Christ's humble birth."Dear refugees, do not think that your present condition makes you any less important in God's eyes! Never forget your dignity as his children!" he said. "Here at Bethlehem the Divine Child was laid in a manger in a stable; shepherds from the nearby fields were the first to receive the heavenly message of peace and hope for the world. God's design was fulfilled in the midst of humility and poverty."The pontiff said he hoped and prayed that his visit would bring some comfort to the estimated 3.5 million Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war that followed the birth of the modern state of Israel."Please God it will help to draw attention to your continuing plight," he said in his speech at the camp. "You have been deprived of many things which represent basic needs of the human person, proper housing, health care, education and work. Above all you bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind, not just material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives, and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions which nourished your personal and family life."He called on political leaders in the Middle East and the international community to work towards a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. The refugees had, he said, an "inalienable right" to justice.Although he was given a hero's welcome, the Pope's statements fell short of Palestinian requests that he make a clear statement in support of the refugees' "right of return" to their former homes in land that is now part of Israel.Many of the buildings in the refugees' compound visited by the Pope are crumbling and have no running water or electricity during certain times of the year. The camp has open sewers and is reached through narrow roads and alleyways of dirt and broken asphalt. Ziad Abbas, a 35-year-old Muslim who like many other residents has lived in Dheisheh all his life, said the Pope could help the refugees realize their dream. "We have suffered a lot and the international community did not pay enough attention to that," he told Ecumenical News International.Many here hope and believe that the Pope's very presence in the camp will have more effect than any statements about the Palestinian refugees' struggle for a just solution to their plight.Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

See coverage of the Pope's Bethlehem visit in the Jerusalem Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and other sites.The Vatican has the text of the Pope's speeches at the Bethlehem airport and in Manger Square.