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In Bethlehem, Pope calls for Palestinian ‘homeland’

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Pope Benedict XVI called for a "sovereign Palestinian homeland" during a visit to Bethlehem.

The pontiff spoke Wednesday at the start of a one-day visit to the West Bank. He offered words of greeting to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the beginning of his visit. 

"The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders," he told Abbas.

The pope toured the Church of the Nativity, which stands on the spot where Christians believe that Jesus was born, and then celebrated Mass in Manger Square.

Some 10,000 people attended the Mass, according to the Vatican spokesman, including 100 Gazan Christians who were able to travel from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank after Israel eased restrictions for the trip, The New York Times reported.

During the Mass, the pope addressed the Gazan worshipers.

“Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted,” he told them.

Following the Mass, the pope visited a refugee camp near Bethlehem.

"Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached – the wall," the pope said.

The camp was the site of controversy last week as Palestnian Authority and Israeli officials squared off over whether the pope would speak from a stage erected in front of the security barrier. It was dismantled late last week.

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