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Thursday, 23 March, 2000, 13:01 GMT
Arab press celebrate Pope's support

Holding key to Palestinian aspirations (cartoon in al-Ayyam)
The Arab media have taken heart from Wednesday's visit by Pope John Paul II to the Palestinian self-ruled town of Bethlehem, the birthplace - as they all point out - of Christianity.

The London-based pan-Arab daily al-Hayat leads with a large picture of the Pope under an unfurled Palestinian flag with the headline: "The Pope to the Palestinians: You have the right to a 'homeland'".



A medal from Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem
The paper says the Pope has not shrunk from the strong political impact which comes from the fulfilment of his dream to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

"He took a handful of Palestinian earth given to him by a child and kissed it, without thinking of the raging storm that this kiss would provoke in Israeli political circles," the paper says.



Decisive statements stressing support for Palestinian national rights

Al-Ayyam
This apparent acknowledgement of Palestinian statehood was just one of "numerous decisive statements which stressed the support of the Vatican for Palestinian national rights" according to al-Ayyam newspaper, published in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem-based al-Quds quotes a Vatican spokesman who said how strange it would have been "if he had not kissed the earth on which Jesus Christ was born".

All the Arab press infer special significance from the Pope's visit to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, home to some of the millions of Palestinian refugees who were displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and during subsequent Arab-Israeli wars.



Palestinians saw a ringing endorsment of their wish for a state
However, while the Arab media speak of the Pope's endorsement of United Nations resolutions regarding the Palestinians, the leading Israeli daily Haaretz points out that John Paul specifically did not mention the refugees' right of return, enshrined in Security Council Resolution 194.

And Haaretz says a false note was struck in Dheisheh, "hardly 15 minutes after the Pope's departure from the squalid camp".

"Undignified fighting erupted between rival political factions that left at least two people injured in a stone-throwing melee that was only quelled hours later by Palestinian police".

The English-language Jerusalem Post says Israel is "unfazed" by Wednesday's proceedings, "despite the political connotations" of the Pope's speeches.

However, in a separate article, in which the paper takes the views of Israeli political commentators, the focus is on "the very political and one-sided" nature of the trip.



No return for long-suffering refugees, according to Haaretz
For the most part Israeli officials and commentators are able to play this down because it "contains nothing new".

But commentator Dr Yitzhak Minerbi, quoted in JP, says there were barely hidden messages in the Pope's religious statements, linking the suffering of Jesus with that of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Dr Minerbi specifically takes issue with the Pope's words "This is a place that has known 'the yoke' and 'the rod' of oppression. How often has the cry of innocents been heard in these streets?"

"We all know who he is talking about," Mr Minerbi is quoted as saying.

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See also:

20 Mar 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Pope on a tightrope
22 Mar 00 | Middle East
Pope calls for Palestinian homeland
21 Mar 00 | Middle East
Holy Land's Christians under pressure
31 Jan 00 | Middle East
Jerusalem: Eternal, intractable
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