Vatican Update
[MAR. 22, 2000]
Catholic World News Service




BETHLEHEM ( -- Pope John Paul II arrived on
Palestinian soil on March 22, and immediately expressed his
sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people.

"Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all peoples of the region!"
the Holy Father said as he arrived in Bethlehem. "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 too long."

The Pontiff was warmly greeted by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
at his presidential palace. After the short helicopter ride from
Jerusalem, where he is staying during his trip to the Holy Land, the
Pope kissed the Palestinian soil offered to him by a pair of young
children in a bowl-- a custom he has developed since his declining
health made it impossible for him to kneel and kiss the ground of
each new country he visited. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls
cautioned reporters should not interpret that gesture as a signal of
Vatican recognition for the Palestinian state. Rather, he said, "It
would be strange if the Pope did not embrace the ground of the place
where Jesus was born."

Among the dignitaries greeting the Pontiff where Palestinian
officials, Catholic bishops, and leaders of the local Orthodox and
Muslim communities. Yasser Arafat, who heard the Pope speak while
seated with his wife in front of a huge photo of the Al-Aqsa mosque
in Jerusalem-- appeared particularly delighted by the presence of
the Bishop of Rome.

"The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have
the natural right to a homeland," the Pontiff told Arafat and his
guest. He added that  "my predecessors and I have repeatedly
claimed 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."
Thanking Arafat for his warm welcome, the Pope went on to say that
Bethlehem rightly holds a special place in the hearts of all Christian
believers. "Bethlehem-- where a choir of angels sang 'Glory to God in
the highest, and on earth peace among men'-- stands out in every
place and in every age, as the promise of God's gift of peace," he said.

Pope John Paul continued: "The message of Bethlehem is good news
of reconciliation among men, of peace at every level of relations
between individuals and nations. Bethlehem is a universal crossroads
where all peoples can meet to build a together a world worthy of our
human dignity and destiny."
The Pope concluded: "The promise of peace made at Bethlehem will
become a reality for the world only when dignity and rights of all
human beings made in the image of God are acknowledged and



BETHLEHEM ( -- Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on
March 22 in the basilica built upon the spot in Bethlehem where
Jesus was born.

The Pope, arriving in Bethlehem after a short helicopter ride from
Jerusalem, went to the Nativity Basilica in Manger Square. That
ancient church-- which faces a small mosque on the opposite side of
the square-- is maintained by Latin-rite Catholics, Greek Orthodox,
and Armenian Orthodox clergy.

"Bethlehem is at the center of my Jubilee pilgrimage," the Pope
commented during his homily. This is the place, he observed, where
"the eternal entered into history, to remain with us forever."

The birth of Jesus was not a manifestation of earthly power, the Holy
Father remarked. On the contrary, the Lord was born amidst poverty
and neglect; his kingdom was not to be an earthly kingdom but a
victory of good over evil, "the definitive victory over sin and death."
And that victory, he continued, can "transform our weak nature and
make us capable of living in peace with one another and in
communion with God."

As he concluded his homily, the Pope encouraged the Christians who
live in Bethlehem-- a dwindling minority in a predominantly Muslim
town-- to "preserve your presence and your Christian patrimony, in
this place where our Savior was born."
After the Mass, the Pope had lunch at a nearby Franciscan residence
for pilgrims. He returned to the basilica in the afternoon, to go to the
grotto beneath the altar that marks the spot where Jesus was born.



BETHLEHEM ( -- During a March 22 visit to a
Palestinian refugee camp, Pope John Paul II renewed his challenge to
the international community to help the people living in such
"degrading" conditions.

The Deheisheh camp, which was built in 1948 to accommodate
Palestinians driven from the villages during the quest for Israeli
statehood, now has 8,000 inhabitants. The Pope made a quick tour
through the camp, and stopped in a cinder-block schoolroom to make
his remarks about the conditions in which the refugees have now
been living for more than half a century.

"Only a resolute commitment on the part of the leaders of the Middle
East, and of the international community in general, can solve the
causes of your current situation," the Pope said. He then issued a call
for all political leaders to make their contributions to the peace

The Pope saluted the humanitarian agencies which work with
Palestinian refugees, urging them "do not be discouraged." In
particular he singled out the Catholic services and the UN's Relief and
Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, which helps to administer
dozens of camps in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and
Syria-- serving a total of over 2 million Palestinian refugees.

"I pray that my visit will bring you a bit of consolation in your
suffering," the Pope told the residents of the Deheisheh camp. He also
said that he hoped his visit would call public attention to the plight
of the refugee population.

At the conclusion of his remarks, the Pope spoke extemporaneously
for several minutes, concentrating his attention on the young people
in his audience. "You can never allow yourselves to think that your
current condition makes you any less important in the eyes of God,"
he assured them.



JERUSALEM ( -- Before reaching Bethlehem on March
22 to celebrate Mass at the Basilica of the Nativity, Pope John Paul II
made a short, quiet trip to the place near Jericho that is traditionally
believed to be the site of Christ's baptism.

The Pope's visit-- which was deliberately downplayed, because of
the intense emotions surrounding the ancient town of Jericho--
allowed just enough time for the Holy Father to comment on the
significance of Baptism. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic
nuncio in the Holy Land and one of the few people to accompany the
Pontiff on his visit, described a "very simple, but powerfully moving"
ceremony, which was an important part of the Pope's personal
pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In his prayers and remarks at the Jordan River site, the Pope also
spoke of Jericho, referring to the ancient city as "a flourishing oasis in
the desert." He prayed that "that city, so rich in memories, will also
be rich in promise for the future."

One day earlier, the Pontiff had visited another site, on the Jordanian side of the river, which is also claimed to be the spot where Jesus was baptized. The Pope declined to become involved in the argument over which site has a stronger claim.



BETHLEHEM ( -- The wife of Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat saw great political significance in the visit of Pope John Paul
II to Bethlehem-- despite Vatican disavowals of any political

Suha Tawil-- who is a baptized Christian, although she also practices
Islam-- told reporters that most Palestinians are "joyous" and "pride"
to welcome the Pope to their territory. But she made a point of the
fact that John Paul kissed the ground of Palestinian territory-- a
gesture which, she insisted, "sends us a clear message: the Pope is
speaking in favor of a free and independent Palestinian state."

(Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls insisted that the papal
gesture had no such significance. He pointed out that Pope John Paul
has habitually kissed the ground upon his arrival in each new land.)

Questioned about the status of Jerusalem-- which is claimed by both
Israel and Palestine as a capital-- Suha Tawil deferred, saying that
such questions were beyond her competence. However, she did say,
"I think there is a place for everyone in Jerusalem."