Pope urged to steer clear of Holy Land

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The Independent Online
The Arab mayor of Bethlehem, himself a Roman Catholic, yesterday urged Pope John Paul not to make a millennium pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, when 5 million Christians are expected to visit the sites associated with the birth, life and death of Jesus.

"I would not advise His Holiness to come while East Jerusalem is still under Israeli rule," Mayor Hanna Nasser told reporters. "If he can't come to Jerusalem, he can't come to Bethlehem either."

Mr Nasser distinguished between the Pope and leaders of other churches. The Pope, he emphasised, was a head of state as well as the head of the Roman church. To visit the city would be to endorse the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, conquered in the 1967 war, which the Palestinians aspire to establish as their capital.

The mayor made clear, however, that he was not discouraging heads of other churches. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Russian Orthodox patriarch have indicated a wish to lead pilgrim groups.

Whatever happens to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israel remains determined not to yield on Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aviv Shiron, reiterated yesterday: "United Jerusalem was and is the ancient capital of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. That's how it is, and that's how it's going to be."

Bethlehem, which next week celebrates its third Christmas under Palestinian rule, is planning a big facelift for the millennium. The mayor aims to raise $170m (pounds 105m) from an international appeal that will be launched in Brussels next March. A total of $67m has already been pledged.