Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – The Pope supports the right of the Palestinian people to have a “sovereign homeland”, “secure and at peace with its neighbours, within internationally recognised borders”, he “pleads” all people in the region, at war for over 60 years, to “to put aside grievances and divisions”, he hopes that the security problems which have given rise to crushing difficulties in the economic, social and family spheres of Palestinian life will be “allayed” and that the reconstruction of Gaza goes ahead, he invites all to reject terrorism and above all to “not be afraid” to “build a culture of peace and mutual respect that can guarantee a better future”.
It is a day of celebration in Bethlehem: shops are closed, Palestinian and Vatican flags are everywhere, dozens and dozens of banners bidding Pope Benedict welcome, whose portrait alongside that of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, dominates the streets. Little by little as you come to Manger Square, where Mass will be celebrated by the Pope, trumpets and drums can be heard. A crowd of scouts are there, young boys and girls, who march to the sound of the drums and bagpipes.
The sun is high and hot, but it does not deter the people who have also come from other nations. There is a group from Gaza, who Israel gave permission to come from the West Bank. Benedict XVI arrives on the square passing through a great metal door that interrupts the security barrier, built by the Israelis, that dominates almost all of Bethlehem. There is a small church that backs onto the streets gobbled up by the cement wall. Abbas, in his greeting to the Pope, speaks of “apartheid”.
“I know – is Benedict XVI’s reply - how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades. My heart goes out to all the families who have been left homeless. This afternoon I will pay a visit to the Aida Refugee Camp, in order to express my solidarity with the people who have lost so much. To those among you who mourn the loss of family members and loved ones in the hostilities, particularly the recent conflict in Gaza, I offer an assurance of deep compassion and frequent remembrance in prayer. Indeed, I keep all of you in my daily prayers, and I earnestly beg the Almighty for peace, a just and lasting peace, in the Palestinian Territories and throughout the region”.
In the tiny Presidential Palace of the Palestinian Authority, Benedict XVI supports the rights of the Palestinian people but at the same time launches a strong appeal for reconciliation, which later on during the mass, becomes an exhortation to hope. “The Holy See – he tells Abbas - 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 recognized borders. Even if at present that goal seems far from being realized, I urge you and all your people to keep alive the flame of hope, hope that a way can be found of meeting the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for peace and stability”. Recalling the words of John Paul II, “there can be no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness”, “I plead with all the parties to this long-standing conflict to put aside whatever grievances and divisions still stand in the way of reconciliation, and to reach out with generosity and compassion to all alike, without discrimination. Just and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East can only be achieved through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, in which the rights and dignity of all are acknowledged and upheld. I ask all of you, I ask your leaders, to make a renewed commitment to work towards these goals. In particular I call on the international community to bring its influence to bear in favour of a solution. Believe and trust that through honest and persevering dialogue, with full respect for the demands of justice, lasting peace really can be attained in these lands”.
“I pray too – he adds - that, with the assistance of the international community, reconstruction work can proceed swiftly wherever homes, schools or hospitals have been damaged or destroyed, especially during the recent fighting in Gaza.”. During the mass he will send a “warm embrace” to the inhabitants of the Strip, condolences for their losses and solidarity. And finally an appeal “to the many young people throughout the Palestinian Territories today: do not allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts. Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism. Instead, let what you have experienced renew your determination to build peace”.
This exhortation to look with hope and optimism towards the future becomes the central theme of the mass. In the square that runs along the Church of the Nativity, above the altar there is a comet with two tails: in front, an enormous Palestinian flag, two stories high. There are almost two thousand people in the tiny square. A crowd small in numbers but large given the number of Christians in this area.
Naturally in Bethlehem the Pope’s discourse begins with the Nativity. “By taking on our flesh, with all its weaknesses, and transfiguring it by the power of his Spirit, Jesus has called us to be witnesses of his victory over sin and death. And this is what the message of Bethlehem calls us to be: witnesses of the triumph of God’s love over the hatred, selfishness, fear and resentment which cripple human relationships and create division where brothers should dwell in unity, destruction where men should be building, despair where hope should flourish!”.
“Paul – continues the Pope - draws a lesson from the Incarnation which is particularly applicable to the travail which you, God’s chosen ones in Bethlehem, are experiencing: “God’s grace has appeared”, he tells us, “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, and to live, temperately, justly and devoutly in this age”, as we await the coming of our blessed hope, the Savoir Jesus Christ (Tit 2:11-13). Are these not the virtues required of men and women who live in hope? First, the constant conversion to Christ which is reflected not only in our actions but also in our reasoning: the courage to abandon fruitless and sterile ways of thinking, acting and reacting. Then, the cultivation of a mindset of peace based on justice, on respect for the rights and duties of all, and commitment to cooperation for the common good. And also perseverance, perseverance in good and in the rejection of evil. Here in Bethlehem, a special perseverance is asked of Christ’s disciples: perseverance in faithful witness to God’s glory revealed here, in the birth of his Son, to the good news of his peace which came down from heaven to dwell upon the earth. “Do not be afraid!” This is the message which the Successor of Saint Peter wishes to leave with you today, echoing the message of the angels and the charge which our beloved Pope John Paul II left with you in the year of the Great Jubilee of Christ’s birth”.
“Count on the prayers and solidarity of your brothers and sisters in the universal Church, and work, with concrete initiatives, to consolidate your presence and to offer new possibilities to those tempted to leave. Be a bridge of dialogue and constructive cooperation in the building of a culture of peace to replace the present stalemate of fear, aggression and frustration. Build up your local Churches, making them workshops of dialogue, tolerance and hope, as well as solidarity and practical charity. Above all, be witnesses to the power of life, the new life brought by the Risen Christ, the life that can illumine and transform even the darkest and most hopeless of human situations. Your homeland needs not only new economic and community structures, but most importantly, we might say, a new “spiritual” infrastructure, capable of galvanizing the energies of all men and women of good will in the service of education, development and the promotion of the common good. You have the human resources to build the culture of peace and mutual respect which will guarantee a better future for your children. This noble enterprise awaits you. Do not be afraid!”.