Pope reminds world of refugees' plight

Pontiff takes up Palestinians' cause in Bethlehem Mass

March 23, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Exclaiming "Do not be afraid!" from a pulpit in Jesus' birthplace, Pope John Paul II worshiped and empathized yesterday with Palestinians struggling to build a homeland and sternly reminded the world that they had suffered too much.

Celebrating a joyous, colorful Mass in the cradle of Christendom and touring a depressed refugee camp nearby, Pope John Paul warmly embraced the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabs who share the Holy Land with Israel and called on political leaders to work for "the justice to which [Palestinians] have an inalienable right."

It was a day full of political symbolism, including a papal kiss on a bowl of Palestinian soil and a Muslim muezzin's call to prayer that sounded in Bethlehem just as the pope finished a homily before 10,000 enthusiastic worshipers in front of the Church of the Nativity.

"Today from Manger Square, we cry out to every time and place, and to every person: Peace be with you! Do not be afraid," the pope said in his homily.

Pope John Paul repeated the exhortation several times, in a clear message to Palestinians that he is with them in not surrendering their rights.

He made the point more strongly when he was with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, saying, "No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long."

While endorsing the Palestinian demand for a homeland and making gestures that implied recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state, the pope avoided a topic that would have inflamed Israelis, the demand by hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to the towns and villages where their families once lived in Israel.

A day intended to bring hope ended with an ugly display of the tensions that beset the area. Soon after the pope ended a visit to the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem, fighting and stone-throwing broke out among rival factions.

Welcome from Arafat

The pope's visit to Palestinian-controlled territory began with an official welcome from Arafat, who greeted Pope John Paul as "an esteemed guest in holy Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine." That was a clear response to Israeli leaders who hailed Jerusalem yesterday as their undivided capital. Sovereignty over Jerusalem is an issue to be negotiated in peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

In Manger Square, the modern public center of Bethlehem, Pope John Paul was greeted by a colorful tapestry of waving flags representing the Palestinians, Poland, the Vatican and a group from Mexico. An announcer led cheers for the pope over a loudspeaker that reverberated against the stone walls of the buildings in the square: "Viva il papa" in Italian; "Ya'ish Baba" in Arabic.

The stage where the altar stood displayed a gold and white streaking Star of Bethlehem overhead and was flanked by two giant posters of the pope grasping the hands of Arafat.

"I'm so proud he is here in Bethlehem," said Hala Bassous, 35, a Bethlehem resident who is a Syrian Orthodox. "When I see him, my heart is full. My heart is opened to God."

Support for statehood

The Palestinians attending the Mass, Muslim and Christian, said that Pope John Paul's visit affirmed their aspirations to win statehood.

"It is a very fruitful day for us as

Palestinians that Baba comes here," said Mahmoud Naim, 48, a Muslim from Bethlehem. "He always supports us for all our rights as Palestinians. So we are here to receive him and respect him as the most religious man in the world."

The pope began the Mass with the Arabic greeting, "A'salaam aleikum" (Peace be unto you).

In his sermon, the pope, speaking in a voice clearer and stronger than in the recent past, proclaimed Bethlehem as "the heart of my Jubilee Pilgrimage. The paths that I have taken lead me to this place and to the mystery that it proclaims."

He greeted the Palestinian people with, "Aware as I am that this is an especially important time in your history." And he offered words of encouragement to Arab Christians, a minority in the Holy Land who often feel forgotten by the rest of the Christian world. "Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where Savior was born," he said.

As the pope finished speaking, a call rang out from a muezzin at the mosque adjacent to the square, directly in front of the Church of the Nativity. Pope John Paul bowed his head and listened as the Mass paused for the moment of interfaith worship. A similar greeting from the mosque was arranged during the last Christmas Eve Mass, which is televised worldwide.

The day also had contemplative moments. The pope spent an extended period in silent prayer in the Grotto of the Nativity, where a bronze star marks the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. He knelt on the hard marble floor and rested his head on the altar, seemingly lost in prayer.

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