VATICAN CITY, APRIL 21, 2002 ( John Paul II urged Israelis and Palestinians to have "the courage of peace" but also to stop using Bethlehem´s besieged Basilica of the Nativity as a motive for "blackmail."

"Our intense prayer also continues for the situation in the Holy Land from whence, unfortunately, worrying news and images of destruction do not cease to arrive," the Pope said today before reciting the midday Regina Caeli with pilgrims gathered in St. Peter´s Square.

"They are images that are more forceful than any appeal and demand that no attempt be neglected at every level so that that land, blessed by God, be extricated as soon as possible from the spiral of hatred and violence," the Holy Father added.

The Bishop of Rome said that he remembers the situation in the basilica every day. The Bethlehem landmark has been besieged by the Israeli army since April 2, when over 200 Palestinians, many armed, took refuge in its interior.

Thirty-five Franciscan friars, four Franciscan nuns, three Armenian Orthodox monks and four Greek Orthodox monks are confined in adjacent buildings, without water, electricity or food.

John Paul II said that for almost 20 days "the basilica and adjacent buildings have been the scene of clashes, blackmail and unbearable mutual accusations."

"May that place, and all holy places soon be restored to prayer and pilgrims, to God and man!" the Holy Father exclaimed.

John Paul II also appealed to the international community to have "the tenacity of solidarity" with the troubled region.

"May Israelis and Palestinians be able to learn to live together, and may the Holy Land at last return to being a sacred land and a land of peace!" the Pope implored.