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Pope wants Holy Places returned to pilgrims for prayer

Expressing his deep concern over the continuing standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Pope John Paul II yesterday called upon the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"Our prayer continues without ceasing also for the situation in the Holy Land, from where, sad to say, concerning reports and pictures of destruction continue to arrive," he said while praying the Angelus in St Peter's Square. "These pictures are more powerful than any spoken appeal and they urge us to try everything possible, at all levels, to help that Land, blessed by God, to find a way out of the spiral of hatred and violence."

The Holy Father said he goes daily "in spirit" to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Nativity, where spent "unforgettable moments during his Jubilee Pilgrimage".

For almost 20 days the compound of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem has been under siege by the Israeli army. Inside there are at least 200 Palestinians, most of them armed. Also inside are the religious "keepers": 30 Catholic Franciscan friars and four nuns and communities of Greek and Armenian Orthodox monks determined to remain at the Holy Place to protect and guard it.

The Pope continued: "For twenty days the Church and surrounding buildings have been the scene of fighting, blackmail and unbearable exchanges of accusations. That Place, and all the Holy Places, must be immediately restored to prayer and pilgrims, to God and to man

"May Mary the most holy Virgin obtain for the conflicting sides the courage of peace and for the international community the tenacity of solidarity. May Israelis and Palestinians learn to live together and may the Holy Land be once more a land that is sacred, a Land of peace"


22 Apr 2002