VATICAN CITY, 13 MAY 2009 (VIS) - Having completed his visit to the Caritas Baby Hospital, the Holy Father boarded his popemobile and travelled the two kilometres separating it from the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.
The Aida camp is one of the refugee camps in the Palestinian Territories, which house a total of 1,300,000 refugees who arrived in two waves: in 1948 with the birth of the State of Israel, and in 1967 following the Six-Day War. The Aida camp, an example of co-existence between Christians and Muslims, houses some 5,000 people, including a number of Christian families. Various estimates give the number of people living in the Palestinian Territories as between three and four million. According to 2008 estimates from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Palestinian refugees number 4,600,000 scattered between Jordan (1,700,000 of whom 329,000 live in ten camps); the West Bank (500,000 in nineteen camps); the Gaza Strip (1,000,000 in eight camps, in a total population of 1,500,000); Lebanon (409,000 in twelve camps) and Syria (120,000 in nine camps).
In his remarks, the Pope welcomed the opportunity to express his "solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace, or to live permanently in a homeland of their own". He also praised the work of UNRWA officials in this camp and others throughout the region.
Benedict XVI reiterated the importance of education and called on young people present to "renew your efforts to prepare for the time when you will be responsible for the affairs of the Palestinian people in years to come". In this context, he also called on parents "to support your children in their studies and to nurture their gifts, so that there will be no shortage of well-qualified personnel to occupy leadership positions in the Palestinian community in the future.
"I know", he added, "that many of your families are divided - through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement - and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. ... Please be assured that all Palestinian refugees across the world, especially those who lost homes and loved ones during the recent conflict in Gaza, are constantly remembered in my prayers".
The Holy Father also praised the work of certain Church agencies in the Palestinian Territories, such as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who "call to mind the charismatic figure of St. Francis, that great apostle of peace and reconciliation", and the Franciscan family in general which cares "for the people of these lands, by making themselves 'instruments of peace'".
"Instruments of peace", the Pope reiterated. "How much the people of this camp, these Territories, and this entire region long for peace! In these days, that longing takes on a particular poignancy as you recall the events of May 1948 and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events. You are now living in precarious and difficult conditions, with limited opportunities for employment.
"It is understandable that you often feel frustrated. Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian State, remain unfulfilled. Instead you find yourselves trapped, as so many in this region and throughout the world are trapped, in a spiral of violence, of attack and counter-attack, retaliation, and continual destruction. The whole world is longing for this spiral to be broken, for peace to put an end to the constant fighting. 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.
"In a world where more and more borders are being opened up - to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges - it is tragic to see walls still being erected. How we long to see the fruits of the much more difficult task of building peace! How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!
"On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome, if the urge to retaliate for loss or injury is to be resisted. It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after years of fighting. Yet history has shown that peace can only come when the parties to a conflict are willing to move beyond their grievances and work together towards common goals, each taking seriously the concerns and fears of the other, striving to build an atmosphere of trust. There has to be a willingness to take bold and imaginative initiatives towards reconciliation: if each insists on prior concessions from the other, the result can only be stalemate".
Benedict XVI emphasised the fact that humanitarian aid, such as the kind provided in the Aida camp, is essential "but the long-term solution to a conflict such as this can only be political. No one expects the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to arrive at it on their own. The support of the international community is vital, and hence I make a renewed appeal to all concerned to bring their influence to bear in favour of a just and lasting solution, respecting the legitimate demands of all parties and recognising their right to live in peace and dignity, in accordance with international law. Yet at the same time, diplomatic efforts can only succeed if Palestinians and Israelis themselves are willing to break free from the cycle of aggression".
The Holy Father concluded his comments with a plea "for a profound commitment to cultivate peace and non-violence, following the example of St. Francis and other great peacemakers. Peace has to begin in the home, in the family, in the heart. I continue to pray that all parties to the conflict in these lands will have the courage and imagination to pursue the challenging but indispensable path of reconciliation. May peace flourish once more in these lands! May God bless His people with peace!"
Having concluded his address Benedict XVI travelled to the presidential palace in Bethlehem to pay a courtesy visit to the president of the Palestinian National Authority.
PV-PALESTINE/REFUGEES/BETHLEHEM VIS 20090514 (1050)