Pope decries violence in Bethlehem, urges Israel and Palestinians to make peace

Sunday, April 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Pope John Paul II, lamenting that the Church of the Nativity has been the site of ``clashes, blackmail and insupportable exchanges of accusations,'' on Sunday urged Israel and the Palestinians to have the courage to make peace.

The daily scenes of violence in Bethlehem, the pope said, compels the international community at all levels do everything possible to stop the Holy Land from being caught up in ``a spiral of hatred and violence.''

He prayed that Israel and the Palestinians learn to live together and that the church, and all sacred places in the Holy Land ``be returned to prayer and pilgrims, to God and man!''

The pope's comments, to thousands of the faithful and visitors to St. Peter's Square, came as Israeli forces on Sunday withdrew from the West Bank city of Nablus and most of Ramallah, but continued their siege of the Church of the Nativity.

On April 2, about 200 armed Palestinians dashed into the church, built over the biblical site of Jesus' birth, to evade Israeli soldiers involved in a military campaign to find Palestinians behind deadly attacks on Israelis.

Israel has said it won't leave Bethlehem completely until the standoff ends.

Since the siege began, the Vatican has insisted that the sacred nature of the church complex be respected _ a message repeated Sunday by John Paul.

He said that every day, he remembered the ``unforgettable moments'' he spent in the Church of the Nativity during his visit to the Holy Land in 2000.

``For nearly 20 days, the Basilica and the attached buildings have been the theater of clashes, blackmail and insupportable exchanges of accusations,'' he said.

He prayed that Mary give the two sides ``the courage for peace and the international community the persistence of solidarity'' and said he hoped that the Holy Land ``finally becomes a sacred land and a land of peace.