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The BBC's Orla Guerin reports
"A journey to the cradle of the faith"
 real 28k

Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian legislative assembly
"We have no doubt that the Pope supports a Palestinian state"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 22 March, 2000, 15:20 GMT
Pope calls for Palestinian homeland
The Pope and Palestinian flag
A Palestinian flag flutters as the Pope arrives in Bethlehem
Pope John Paul II has made an impassioned plea for a Palestinian homeland, at the start of his visit to the West Bank town of Bethlehem - the birthplace of Jesus Christ.


The Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland

John Paul II
"No-one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on for too long," the Pope said in a speech at a welcoming ceremony attended by the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

On his arrival in Bethlehem, he was presented with a bowl of earth, which he kissed.

A Palestinian homeland

The Pope said the Vatican had always recognised that the Palestinian people "have the natural right to a homeland, and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquillity with the other peoples of this area".


Arafat and the Pope
Yasser Arafat warmly welcomed the Pope's comments
"In the international forum, my predecessors and I have repeatedly proclaimed that there would be no end to the sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all the peoples involved, on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations," the Pontiff said.

The Pope called for courage, compromise and "compliance with the demands of justice" from all the parties involved.



The Palestinian people value highly your just positions in support of their cause

Yasser Arafat
In an itinerary heavy with political and religious symbolism, he will also hold talks with Mr Arafat and tour a Palestinian refugee camp.

In response, Yasser Arafat said: "The Palestinian people value highly your just positions in support of their cause and their rightful presence on their homeland as a sovereign and independent people."

Click here for sacred sites on the Papal tour

BBC correspondent Hilary Andersson says the Pope's speech can only have lived up to the Palestinians' highest expectations.

But Israeli officials played down the Pope's words. Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said: "I don't see anything new in the Vatican's position. We are not going to look at the petty details of the visit through a microscope."

Earlier on Wednesday, he visited Qasr el Yahud - the site on the West Bank of the River Jordan where Israel says Jesus was baptised.

This followed a visit on Tuesday to the place on the east bank, which Jordan claims as the baptism site.

Mass in Manger Square

The Pope held mass for 20,000 believers in Manger Square in Bethlehem.

"Today from Manger Square, we cry out to every time and place, and to every person, 'Peace be with you. Do not be afraid!" the Pope told the worshippers and guests, including Yasser Arafat.



Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where the saviour was born

John Paul II
"These are divine words, spoken by Jesus himself."

The Pope also urged the dwindling Palestinian Christian minority to stay in the Holy Land.

"Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where the saviour was born," he said from a makeshift stage outside the Church of the Nativity.

Pope John Paul greeted the majority Palestinian Muslim community of Bethlehem, and called for "a new era of understanding and co-operation among all the peoples of the Holy Land."


Dheisheh
The Pope will visit Dheisheh refugee camp
Raful Rofa, a Palestinian Catholic human rights activist who attended the mass said: "I think people put a lot of hope in the Pope. He can present our case to the world. He can show the world we exist and we need all the help we can get."

Later, the Pope visited the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank.

He issued a plea to world leaders to end the plight of homeless Palestinians.

"Only a resolute effort on the part of leaders in the Middle East and in the international community as a whole ... can remove the causes of your present situation," he told refugee families.


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See also:

22 Mar 00 | Middle East
In pictures: the Pope visits Bethlehem
22 Mar 00 | Middle East
The Pope's address in full
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Israeli and Arab press hail Pope
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Holy Land's Christians under pressure
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Flashback: 1964 papal visit
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Pope pleads for Middle East unity
21 Mar 00 | Middle East
Fresh push for Mid-East peace
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