Pope Benedict used a visit to a West Bank refugee camp yesterday to issue his most resonant plea yet for an independent Palestinian state, while describing the Israeli military's separation barrier as a "tragic" manifestation of years of conflict.
The 82-year-old Pope went out of his way at an open air mass in Bethlehem, and in a later politically charged visit to the crowded Aida refugee camp, to identify with the plight of Palestinian civilians declaring: "I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades."
In a UN schoolyard in Aida festooned with banners lamenting the barrier and recalling the expulsion of refugees from their homes in what is now Israel in the 1948 War, the Pope stood beside the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against the backdrop of the wall and a military watchtower.
"Their legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state, remain unfulfilled," he said. "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 neighbours, within internationally recognised borders."
Pope Benedict's support for a state – which the new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to endorse in public – came after an open air and sometimes festive mass in warm sunshine in the nativity city's Manger Square where he expressed solidarity with the stricken public of Gaza.
Referring to the hundred-plus Christians – less than the 250 who had applied – allowed out from Gaza by Israel for yesterday's mass, Pope Benedict told the crowds: "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."
And in a clear reference both to the damage left by Israel's three-week military onslaught on Gaza this year and the siege it imposed on the territory after Hamas seized full control there in June 2007, the Pope added: "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."
At Aida, the Pope was careful to directly address young Palestinians tempted to armed militancy by calling on them to "have the courage to resist any temptation to resort to acts of violence or terrorism". And he said that for the wall to be brought down – as he earnestly hoped it would – both sides would have to erase the wall "in their hearts".
But he declared forthrightly: "In a world where more and more borders are being opened up... it is tragic to see walls still being erected. How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built."
The wall did not exist when his predecessor John Paul came in 2000. Israel began raising its barrier of fences and concrete through and around the West Bank in 2002, in what it said was a temporary measure to stop deadly Palestinian bombings.
Although Pope Benedict made no reference to "the right of return" of refugees to their homes in Israel, his visit to the Aida camp – where calls for that right are a part of the staple discourse – is unlikely to endear him to Israeli critics, already restive over what they see as his less-than-wholly-satisfactory condemnation of the Holocaust earlier in the trip. Palestinian moderates believe a compromise on "the right of return" is achievable, but some prominent Israeli politicians see the concept as threatening the future of the Jewish state.
The pontiff was warmly received at the mass outside the Church of Nativity – with even occasional football crowd chants of "Benedetto". The musical highlight was probably the lusty singing in Latin of "O Come all Ye Faithful" by a mainly female choir assembled from Bethlehem and other Christian towns and villages in the West Bank.
George Maria, 45, a Catholic audio-visual technician from Bethlehem University, who brought his wife Natalie, 40, and two children to the mass, said: "We are so happy. I couldn't express my happiness that the Pope has come here." Acknowledging that there had been emigration by Christians from the West Bank in recent years, he insisted: "As Palestinians we are facing problems, no matter whether we are Muslims or Christians. We have the same goal which is the freedom of Palestine."
Mr Maria admitted that there were sometimes tensions between Muslims and Christians but added: "These are more social and not political. After all I quarrel with my wife sometimes." Issam Aziseh, 43, a Syriac Catholic who has returned to Bethlehem after 20 years working as the Avis car rental manager at San Francisco airport said: "This visit is very important. We look to the Pope as the head of our church."