Pope's sermon of defiance sparks Bethlehem riots

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The Pope became the instant hero of the Palestinian people yesterday after he plunged into the political cauldron of the Middle East with what amounted to a stinging indictment of Israel's conduct.

The Pope became the instant hero of the Palestinian people yesterday after he plunged into the political cauldron of the Middle East with what amounted to a stinging indictment of Israel's conduct.

But only an hour after uttering his words - at a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem - the place erupted into riots with running street battles between stone-throwing Palestinians youths and baton- wielding Palestinian police, who were also hurling stones.

Emotions - stoked high because of the pontiff's visit - spilled over half an hour after the Popemobile had drawn out of Bethlehem, bearing its 79-year-old occupant back to a helicopter and nearby Jerusalem. If proof was needed of the perils of John Paul II's mission to the Middle East - and the risk he is taking personally, despite a huge security operation - then this was it.

As dusk turned to darkness, large chunks of concrete and rocks flew through the air, as about 700 youths charged out of the camp to confront the police, who engaged in the battle as enthusiastically as the youths they were trying to quell.

At first the police were driven back, but then they returned, with shields, wooden batons and, in some cases, large planks of wood and heavy bits of metal pipe. Some of the security officials began brawling with their colleagues, apparently urging restraint.

Only an hour earlier, the pontiff himself - a picture of frail vulnerability for all his splendour and power - had been standing before a crowd in the same camp, Deheisheh, the squalid and overcrowded home of most of these rioters.

In words that acquired a new resonance as the fights began, he spoke mumblingly, but graphically of the "degrading conditions" that Palestinians have endured since being driven from their homes during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, and emphasised their "unalienable right to justice".

"You have been deprived of many things which represent the basic needs of the human person: proper housing, health care, education and work," he told them. He cannot have known that these deprivations - which much surely play a big part in the tensions here - would take violent expression so soon.

"This is very, very bad," said a middle-aged Palestinian man as the fighting raged to and fro. For two hours we were trapped together inside a restaurant while the fighting raged only a few yards away. "I have never seen anything like it in my life," he said, shaking his head. He did not want to be named. For good reason. These were scenes - such an ugly contrast to the flagwaving and joy of their brief moment in the international limelight earlier - the security police did not want to be seen.

Earlier, the sight of his Popemobile drew warm cheers and applause from the waiting crowd as it drew into the camp, the final stop in a day which saw him preside over an outdoor mass before a large crowd in Bethlehem's Manger Square.

"You bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind," the pontiff told the refugees, who are a small percentage of the 3.5 million Palestinian refugees scattered around Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. "Not just the material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions which nourished your personal and family life." It became clear that John Paul II intended to pull no punches from the moment he arrived in Palestinian-controlled territory, yesterday morning. Addressing Yasser Arafat at the Bethlehem helipad, before going on to the mass, he stressed that "there would be no end to this sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all people's involved on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations."

These words were aimed squarely at Israel, which has long defied key UN resolutions. Mr Arafat himself was restrained; the case was being made for him.

The Pope also made pointed reference to Israel's approach to peace talks with the Palestinians, which resumed this week. "Only with a just and lasting peace - not imposed but secured through negotiations -will legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled." The Holy See had always recognised Palestinians' right to a homeland, he said, adding that Deheisheh served as "a reminder to the international community that decisive action is needed to improve the situation".

The Israeli reaction was dismissive. "We see nothing new in the Vatican's position," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Public Security Minister. "We will not look at the petty details of the visit through a microscope."

But even if the Palestinians do not make the connection between his appearance and the ensuing riots, some Israelis will do so. He will be blamed for stoking up the mood, and the behaviour of the Palestinian police will be cited as evidence that they are not yet ready for their own homeland.

The Pope's one day in Palestinian-controlled territory was always going to be the controversial part of his programme, and certainly the day which was most likely to jar with the Israelis. Even the Manger Square mass, conducted yards away from the church marking the presumed site of Christ's birth, almost had the flavour of a rally, in which the thousands of Palestinian worshippers waved a sea of national flags at the world's television cameras. But Deheisheh, - more a township than a camp these days, which houses 10,000 Palestinians in dismal conditions - was the most precarious of all.

Its walls, still carrying Arabic writing from the Intifada, were festooned with fresh grafitti and banners, outlining the full panapoly of Palestinian grievances for the Pope to see.