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The BBC's Jeremy Bowen reports
"The Palestinians said he was recognising their sovereignty here"
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The BBC's Paul Adams in Jerusalem
"For him the yardsticks are the old ones of right and wrong"
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BBC's Hilary Andersson in Bethlehem
"A second politically loaded speech at the Dheusheh refugee camp"
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Thursday, 23 March, 2000, 02:11 GMT
Pope's plea for Palestinian refugees
Pope and Arafat
The Pope blesses children, accompanied by Mr Arafat
Pope John Paul II has appealed to world leaders to end the plight of homeless Palestinians on the latest leg of his landmark pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Visiting the sprawling, dusty Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Pontiff described conditions as degrading.

I appeal to political leaders to implement agreements already arrived at

Pope John Paul II
He told its inhabitants of the urgent need for a just solution to their plight.

His comments followed an impassioned plea he made earlier for an independent Palestinian homeland, when he visited the West Bank town of Bethlehem - the birthplace of Jesus Christ - to celebrate mass.

"This visit will help draw attention to the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind," the Pope told refugees at the camp.

Dheisheh refugee camp
Dheisheh: Sprawling, dusty and overcrowded
"I appeal to political leaders to implement agreements already arrived at, and to go forward towards the peace for which all reasonable men and women yearn."

The Vatican described it as a humanitarian visit, but political overtones were unmistakable. Banners throughout the camp read: "We have a dream. The right of return is sacred."


The refugees gave the Pope a hero's welcome, begging him to help them return to the villages they fled or were forced to leave with Israel's creation in 1948.

But less than an hour after his departure, hundreds of youths - apparently angry at heavy-handed treatment by Palestinian security forces - hurled stones at baton-wielding police, in a grim reminder of the violence still troubling the Holy Land.

Click here for sacred sites on the Papal tour

The BBC's Hilary Andersson says the Pope's call for the enactment of international agreements on the refugee issue is an apparent reference to a UN resolution calling for the return of the displaced to their homes or for compensation.

We hope that the Pope ... will help end our suffering once and for all

Palestinian refugee
Most of Dheisheh's 10,000 residents live in very basic conditions in crowded, corrugated metal shacks.

About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their towns and villages in 1948.

They became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and beyond. Their number has since grown to four million, and their fate is a key issue facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators hoping to hammer out a final peace by September.

Palestinian homeland

Our correspondent says that so far on his tour of Palestinian-controlled areas of the Holy Land, the Pope has met all the expectations of the Palestinian leaders.

The Pope prays in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity
On his arrival in Bethlehem, he was presented with a bowl of earth, which he kissed.

"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," he said in a speech shortly afterwards at a welcoming ceremony.

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".

Everybody from our Palestinian people understood it's his asking for a Palestinian independent state

Mrs Arafat
Mr Arafat said he valued the Pontiff's support highly. His wife, Soha, said the Pope's message was clear.

"Everybody from our Palestinian people understood it's his asking for a Palestinian independent state," she said.

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."


There then followed the day's public highlight - a mass celebrated with 20,000 faithful in Bethlehem's Manger Square.

"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.

"These are divine words, spoken by Jesus himself."

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

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.

The Pontiff has now flown back to Jerusalem.

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See also:

22 Mar 00 | Middle East
Pope calls for Palestinian homeland
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In pictures: the Pope visits Bethlehem
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Analysis: Pope on a tightrope
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Flashback: 1964 papal visit
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