The Pope Dodges Controversy in Bethlehem

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David Silverman / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI greets the cheering crowd of pilgrims and local worshippers gathered for Holy Mass in his arrival in Manger Square May 13, 2009 in Bethlehem, West Bank.

"Towering over us ... is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached — the wall," Pope Benedict XVI told an audience of mainly Muslim Palestinians at a refugee camp in Bethlehem on Wednesday. The Pope's meaning could have been metaphoric or literal: He was speaking beneath an Israeli watchtower atop the 22-foot high concrete wall built by Israel to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers. "How we earnestly pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built."

The security banner, which snakes through much of the West Bank, encircling Palestinian towns and, in many places, separating farmers from their land, is a symbol of how badly relations between Israelis and the Palestinians have deteriorated since the last papal trip to the Holy Land. When John Paul II visited in 2000, there was no wall around the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders were still negotiating the terms of a final peace agreement. (See pictures of the pope in the Middle East.)

Having been dogged by controversy throughout his tour — Israelis say that the German-born Benedict who had involuntarily been a member of the Hitler Youth should have been more personally contrite during his tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial — the pope negotiated the political minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with skill and aplomb. He was careful not to choose sides while ministering to a congregation of Arab Christians, although he buoyed Palestinian spirits by calling for "a sovereign homeland" located "within internationally recognized borders". (Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thus far refused to accept the principle of sovereign independence for the Palestinians.) (Read a story on Pope Benedict's views on Judaism.)

Nobody expected the Pope to come up with a new peace plan — there are, after all, plenty of those around. Vatican insiders say the Pope's West Bank speeches made no radical departure, because the Roman Catholic Church has long supported the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But Palestinians, frustrated by the stalled peace talks with Israelis, said they appreciated Benedict's call to end "the spiral of violence". (Video: The Pope Visits the Holy Land)

The pontiff's presence in the Holy Land days before Netanyahu flies to Washington to meet President Barack Obama will certainly reinforce the White House's message that the world expects Israel to accept a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Pope got loudest cheers in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity — which is believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus — when he expressed support for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, still reeling from a 22-day Israeli military offensive that ended in January with the loss of 1,400 lives and the destruction of thousands of homes and buildings. Benedict said he was praying for an end to the Israeli blockade around Gaza that has prevented any meaningful reconstruction of the battered territory, and he personally welcomed the delegation of 100 Christians from Gaza that Israel had, at the last minute, allowed to leave the territory to meet the pope.

Bethlehem was the most political leg of the papal tour. While there, Benedict met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, although during his Manger Square sermon and two speeches, he steered clear of a potentially fraught topic of Christianity's relations with Islam. The pontiff's delicately chosen words in Bethlehem are unlikely to rile the Israelis, who had earlier expressed dismay over Benedict's performance at Yad Vashem. "One word unsaid can sometimes be more damaging than a thousand words uttered," opined the Israeli daily Haaretz on Wednesday, the missing word being "Sorry." In Bethlehem, there was no need for the Pope to apologize, because neither Israelis nor Palestinians could take issue with his message that it is up to them to create the mutual trust that will bring down the wall around Bethlehem.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem

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