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Middle east

Pope visits Bethlehem, meets Palestinian president

Latest update : 2009-05-13

Pope Benedict XVI visits Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, where he will celebrate mass, meet refugees and hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

AFP - Pope Benedict XVI heads to the occupied West Bank on Wednesday to celebrate mass in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, meet refugees and hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
During his day-long visit the pontiff will get a close-up view of the eight-metre-(25-foot-)high wall that surrounds a section of Bethlehem and forms part of the huge West Bank separation barrier Israel says is essential to its security but which Palestinians see as a symbol of an "apartheid" regime.
He will get his first view of the wall as he is driven into the city to celebrate mass in Manger Square just outside the Basilica of the Nativity which Christians believe was built over the spot where the Prince of Peace was born.
The pope, who on Tuesday said he felt the pain of those in the Holy Land who suffered "the bitter experiences of displacement," will also visit the Aida camp outside Bethlehem, where some 4,600 refugees live.
His visit will be "a gesture of solidarity and an occasion for the Holy Father to meet with a category of people that sometimes is suffering more than the rest of the people," according to Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco.
Aida residents hope the pontiff's visit will draw the world's attention to their demands to return to the 43 villages they or their parents once called home in what today is Israel, demands rejected by the Jewish state.
The United Nations estimates the number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants at 4.6 million.
The pope will meet Aida residents at a UN-run primary school in the shadow of the separation barrier that snakes its way for hundreds of kilometres (miles), mostly within the West Bank.
The school courtyard is surrounded by a mosque and buildings with filthy walls, one of which features Arabic graffiti that says: "If you sow hatred it will consume you, but if you sow love it will flower among you."
The pope, who appealed for Middle East peace based on a two-state solution on his arrival in Israel on Monday, will meet Abbas at the presidential palace in Bethlehem.
Abbas is expected to ask him to press Israel to ease conditions for Palestinians whose daily life is severely affected by hundreds of military checkpoints and other barriers across the West Bank.
The pope will pray at the underground cave in the Basilica of the Nativity, where a 14-pointed silver star marks the exact spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
The basilica was built in 565 on the site of a 4th century church. It is  administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities.
The pontiff will also visit a maternity hospital run by the Catholic aid agency Caritas.
On Tuesday, Benedict became the first pope to enter the Dome of the Rock on Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is Islam's third holiest place.
The site, which the Jews call Temple Mount, is also the holiest in Judaism and has been a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the latest Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000.
Benedict prayed at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, a sacred point of pilgrimage for Jews.
He later celebrated mass near the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion, telling thousands of faithful he felt the pain of those who suffer because of conflict and displacement in the Holy Land.
Just hours after he began his five-day visit to Israel and the West Bank on Monday, the pope toured the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Nazi genocide, where he said the Holocaust should never be forgotten.
The German-born pope also spoke out against anti-Semitism, but drew criticism for failing to ask forgiveness for the Holocaust or showing emotion as he delivered his speech at Yad Vashem.

Date created : 2009-05-13