Standing in the cradle of Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI told Palestinians on Wednesday that he understands their suffering and offered his strongest public backing yet for an independent Palestinian state.
To get to Jesus' traditional birthplace of Bethlehem, Benedict had to cross through towering concrete slabs, part of a separation barrier Israel has erected to wall off the West Bank's Palestinian areas.
"Mr. President, 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 pontiff said upon his arrival, standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
It was the third day of Benedict's Holy Land pilgrimage meant largely to boost interfaith relations. But so far, it has been fraught with political land mines. Israelis have criticized the German-born pope for failing to adequately express remorse for the Holocaust, while the Palestinians are pressing him to draw attention to the difficult conditions of life under Israeli rule.
The pope also called for a Palestinian homeland when he arrived in Israel on Monday for the five-day visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the audience, says Palestinians are not ready to rule themselves and he has resisted international pressure to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Message of solidarity
In Bethlehem, Benedict delivered a special message of solidarity to the 1.4 million Palestinians isolated in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. He has no plans to visit Gaza.
Israel recently waged a three-week war against Gaza militants that killed more than 1,000 people and badly damaged thousands of homes. The war compounded suffering already caused by an Israel and Egyptian blockade of Gaza's borders since Hamas wrested control of Gaza two years ago.
"In a special way, my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure," the pope told thousands of Palestinians who packed an open-air Mass in Manger Square, some hoisting Palestinian and Vatican flags and pictures of the pontiff and Jesus.
"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," he added.
In a gesture for the pope's visit, Israel allowed nearly 100 members of Gaza's tiny Christian community to travel to the West Bank through Israeli territory that separates the two Palestinian areas.
Benedict's singling out of Gaza "means that Gaza is in the pope's heart," said George Hernandz, bishop of the Holy Family Catholic church in Gaza City. "This a very courageous speech and we are satisfied."
The pope, who has described himself as a "pilgrim of peace," has been forced to navigate some of the touchiest political issues as he makes his way through Israel and the West Bank — his first visit to the region as the head of the Roman Catholic church.
On Tuesday, the Vatican rallied to his defense, describing him as man of strong anti-Nazi credentials and a peacemaker after critics said he failed to apologize in a speech at Israel's Holocaust memorial for what they see as Catholic indifference during the Nazi genocide.
The Palestinians want the pontiff to put pressure on Israel during his visit. Before he arrived, Bethlehem residents expressed hope that he would use his moral authority to support their quest for independence.
"Our pope is our hope" read posters hung around the town, which was also dotted with the yellow and cream flags of the Vatican and red, black, white and green Palestinian flags.
While Benedict acknowledged Palestinian difficulties, he stopped short of blaming Israel.
"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 said.
Abbas invoked the concrete separation barrier and the occupation in his greeting to the pontiff.
"In this Holy Land, the occupation still continues building separation walls," Abbas said. "Instead of building the bridge that can link us, they are using the force of occupation to force Muslims and Christians to emigrate."
He and other Palestinian dignitaries later donned baseball caps imprinted with the black-and-white kaffiyeh headscarf, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
Israel says it has been building the barrier of concrete slabs and electronic fences, which stretches for hundreds of miles along the frontier with the West Bank, to keep out Palestinian militants. Attacks have fallen off sharply, but Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab because it juts into the West Bank at multiple points, placing about 10 percent of the territory on the "Israeli" side.
Christians are a tiny minority among the 3.9 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a trend seen throughout the Middle East, their numbers have dwindled as Palestinians weary of occupation seek out new opportunities abroad.
"When he comes and visits us, it gives us moral and material support," said Ramzi Shomali, a 27-year-old electric company worker. "It motivates us to stay in our land, and he will see our situation and will use his power for our good."
Victor Batarseh, Bethlehem's Christian mayor, said he hoped the papal mission would "encourage Palestinian Christians to be steadfast on their land and encourage them to stay."
The pontiff brought several gifts to Bethlehem, including a ventilator for a baby hospital and a mosaic representation of the birth of Jesus. He received a handwritten Gospel of Luke.
After meeting with Abbas, Benedict was to tour the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition holds Jesus was born, then visit a Palestinian refugee camp.