Pope calls for Palestinian homeland

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The Independent Online

In a pilgrimage to the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI called today for the establishment of a Palestinian state and acknowledged Palestinian suffering during decades of Mideast turmoil.

The pontiff stood alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he delivered his strongest public support yet for Palestinian statehood.

"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.

The Palestinians hoped that the pontiff's visit would highlight the harsh conditions they endure living under Israeli military rule. Benedict acknowledged their difficulties, though stopped short of naming 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.

Earlier today, the pontiff's motorcade drove through a crossing in Israel's towering West Bank separation barrier to reach the cradle of Christianity. Israel says it built the barrier to keep out Palestinian attackers, while Palestinians denounce it as a land grab because it dips into areas they claim for a future independent state.

Later, he was to tour the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional birth grotto and visit a Palestinian refugee camp.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the pope's visit amounts to "a call to end injustice and end occupation."

Christians are a dwindling minority among Palestinians. Christians in Bethlehem say they hope the pope's visit will discourage further Christian emigration.