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Arafat Invites Pope to Visit, Calls on Europe to Press Israel

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has called on Europe to use economic pressure to force Israel to accelerate the peace process.

Arafat’s call came during an awards ceremony Saturday in Florence, a day after he met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and invited the pontiff to visit Bethlehem next year.

The Palestinian leader received the Golden Pegasus peace prize, the same award that was granted posthumously to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after his assassination.

Arafat used the opportunity to accuse Israel of blocking the peace process and to call on Europe to use the “economic card” to pressure the Jewish state to honor commitments it has made in prior negotiations.

During his 13-minute private audience with John Paul II, the sixth time the two men have met, Arafat told the pope about “the tragic situation of the Palestinian people,” according to a Vatican statement.

The statement said the pope told Arafat that the Vatican would support the peace process, “which must continue with goodwill from all sides (and) with respect for the commitments already made and international law.”

Arafat told reporters he had invited John Paul to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, for celebrations of the year 2000 and said the pope had given him a “positive reaction.”

On June 11, Vatican envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray visited the Iraqi town of Ur, revered as the birthplace of Abraham. In a statement Friday, he reiterated the pope’s desire to visit biblical sites across the Middle East.

While in Italy, Arafat also took part in a ceremony twinning Florence with the West Bank town of Nablus and discussed the stalled peace process with Italian political leaders in Rome.

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