PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Pope Benedict XVI in Bethlehem in Wednesday morning, where his gift to the Catholic leader was a part of the cement separation-security barrier that Israel built to stop suicide bombers from blowing up soldiers and civilians.
Foreign media enthusiastically reported the visit, repeating Israeli leaders’ criticism of the Pope’s address at the Yad VaShem Holocaust Center but omitting reference to Monday night’s anti-Israeli outburst by a Muslim cleric in the pope’s presence.
“We have been suffering since the Nakba 61 years ago,” Abbas told the pope, using the Arabic word for the “catastrophe” of the re-establishment of the Jewish state and implying that the Palestinian Authority was a “people” for six decades. “On this holy land, there are people who continue to build separation walls instead of building bridges for connection,” he added.
The areas currently under partial or complete rule by the PA were occupied by Jordan and Egypt between 1947 and 1967, when the land was restored to Israel in the Six-Day War.
The pope specifically called for the establishment of a PA state after having implied as much in his speech when he landed in Israel on Monday at Ben Gurion Airport. "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 pope said.
His visit to Bethlehem Wednesday morning included a meeting with Arabs whose families were residents of Israel before the Arab attempt to annihilate the fledgling Jewish state in 1948.
He referred to them as “homeless.” A basic point of contention between Israel and the PA is the Arab demand that approximately five million descendants of former Israeli Arab residents be allowed to immigrate to the country.
Pope Benedict tempered his support for a PA state with a plea to Arab youth to “have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.” However, he said he understood their violence, which he implied was Israel’s fault. “Do not allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts,” he advised.
Most of his words included warm support for the PA. “I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades,” he stated in Bethlehem.
The Christian population in the city has dwindled significantly, particularly following Muslim harassment. However, Abbas told the pope, “Israel uses the power of occupation to force both Christians and Muslims in this country to migrate, and thus our holy places become antiquities for tourism.”
Following Abbas’s welcome, the pope drove to the Nativity Church to preside over a mass at Manger Square, where Arab terrorists several years ago used the church as a refuge for terrorism.
The PA deployed 3,000 guards to ensure order and to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing incident during the 2000 visit by Pope John Paul, when Arabs called out in Arabic, “Allah is great.” Terrorists often use the same slogan when attacking Jews.