John Paul II Grateful for Liberation of Bethlehem Basilica

Praises Religious Communities for Their Sacrifices

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 12, 2002 ( John Paul II expressed his gratitude to all those who helped end the basilica siege in Bethlehem, pleading for a future of peace in the Holy Land.

«We have received with relief the news that the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem has been restored to God and the faithful,» the Pope said at noon today while greeting thousands of pilgrims gathered in St Peter´s Square.

After praying the Regina Caeli, he gave thanks to «all those who have contributed to the return of the holy place to its true religious identity.»

He praised «the communities of Franciscans, Greeks and Armenian Orthodox who with notable sacrifices have been faithful custodians of the sanctuary» throughout the 39-day siege.

He also encouraged «the people of Bethlehem and its surroundings … to re-embark on the path of faith and hope in God, who became so close to mankind in your land.»

«My special envoy, His Eminence Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, is today the spokesman in Bethlehem for my sentiments,» the Holy Father assured.

This morning, the cardinal presided at a solemn Mass in the Church of Catalina, next to the basilica, to mark the restoration of the historic church as a place for worship.

«The universal message of Bethlehem is love, justice, reconciliation and peace,» the Holy Father said at the Vatican. «On these foundations a future can be built, respectful of the rights of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, with mutual confidence.»

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