BETHLEHEM, MAY 13, 2009 ( Benedict XVI is assuring Palestinian Christians, especially those in Gaza, of the universal Church's support and solidarity in building their Churches and communities.

The Pope said this today in a Mass celebrated in Manger Square, in front of the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, during his day-long visit to the Palestinian Territories.

Over 10,000 people crowded the square and adjoining streets, listening as the Pontiff urged them to be "witnesses of the triumph of God's love over the hatred, selfishness, fear and resentment which cripple human relationships and create division."

He told the Holy Land Christians, "Do not be afraid!"

The Holy Father assured them of the "prayers and solidarity" of the universal Church and encouraged them to "work, with concrete initiatives, to consolidate your presence and to offer new possibilities to those tempted to leave."

Vatican Radio reported today that the number of Christians in Bethlehem has recently dropped from 80% of the population to 15%, and that many seek to emigrate due to the instability of the labor market, the political insecurity, and the threats of fundamentalist Muslims.

The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, told Benedict XVI on Tuesday, "You stand before a small flock that is shrinking, that suffers from emigration, largely due to the effects of the unjust occupation and all its humiliation, violence and hatred."

The Pope exhorted the Christians, "Build up your local Churches, making them workshops of dialogue, tolerance and hope, as well as solidarity and practical charity."

He underlined the need for not only "new economic and community structures, but most importantly," a "new 'spiritual' infrastructure."

The Pontiff stated: "This noble enterprise awaits you. Do not be afraid!"

Christians respond

The Catholic mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, told ZENIT at the Mass that he hopes the Pope's message will "encourage Palestinian Christians to be steadfast on their land and encourage them to stay."

Batarseh, a former physician, added, "As brothers and sisters of Bethlehem we hope that his coming will bring peace and love to all the people."

Later, at the presidential palace, the mayor addressed the Holy Father on behalf of all the West Bank Christians, affirming, "We are all touched by your visit."

He described the visit as a "great symbol of hope" that inspires us with a "determination to remain implanted in our Holy Land as the living stones."

Another Christian, a Palestinian Authority minister and a descendent of a family that has lived in Bethlehem since Christ's birth, also addressed the Pope, affirming the goal to remain in the land and to help build a society based on values of peace and forgiveness.


Although some Palestinian Catholics from Gaza joined in the Mass and other events, only 48 successfully received permission from the Israeli authorities to travel to Bethlehem past the security checkpoints.

The Pontiff directed some words of the homily in Manger Square to assure them, "My heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza."

He sent a message to the 1.5 million people living in the Gaza Strip, including some 300 Catholics: "I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure."

The Holy Father assured them of his "solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead" after the recent conflict with Israel that ended Jan. 18 and left some 1,300 dead.

He also said that he would pray that the embargo, which was imposed by Israel since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, will "soon be lifted."

Earlier today, Benedict XVI expressed the hope for "greater freedom of movement, especially with regard to contact between family members and access to the holy places."

After the Mass, the Pope went on foot to visit the grotto of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was born. He then traveled to the Caritas Baby Hospital where he assured the young patients and their families, "The Pope is with you!"

The Pontiff next visited the Aida refugee camp, and after a farewell ceremony at Bethlehem's presidential palace, he returned to Jerusalem where he will stay until the conclusion of his apostolic visit on Friday.

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On ZENIT's Web page:

Full text of homily in Manger Square:

Full text of address in baby hospital: