Pope Benedict went to the West Bank on Wednesday, offering Vatican support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel and his prayers for an end to Israel’s embargo on the Gaza Strip.
He travelled to Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth, through the snaking Israeli security barrier that separates it from nearby Jerusalem on the third day of a tour of the Holy Land.
There he was met by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who denounced Israel’s “apartheid wall” as part of efforts by the Jewish state to drive out Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
Benedict, speaking in bright morning sunshine, renewed the Vatican’s support for a two-state solution to the conflict — a solution supported by Abbas and Western powers but on which new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been hesitant.
“I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades. My heart goes out to all the families who have lost so much,” the pope said, noting he would visit a refugee camp for families who fled what is now Israel at its founding in 1948.
He had particular words of concern for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who suffered during an Israeli offensive in January.
At a lmass in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity that marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born in a stable, he won applause from worshippers when he said: “My heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza.”
“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.”
To President Abbas earlier, he said: “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 your neighbours, within internationally recognised borders.”