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Pope Pledges Support for Palestinian Statehood

Pope Benedict has traveled into the West Bank, spending the day in Bethlehem, the place Christians venerate the birthplace of Jesus. The pope urged young Palestinians not to resort to violence or terrorism, and pledged his support for the creation of Palestinian state. The pontiff also had words of comfort for the people of the war-torn Gaza Strip.

Pope Benedict got a first-hand view of the restrictions that millions of Palestinians live with when his motorcade crossed through an imposing concrete wall that is part of Israel's security barrier and is meant to keep bombers from the West Bank from carrying out attacks in Israel.

In Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, hundreds of people chanted, "Long Live the Pope," and "Long Live Palestine," as his vehicle made its way through the narrow, ancient streets to the town's Manger Square.

The pope met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to whom he pledged the Vatican's support for the right of a sovereign homeland for the Palestinians in the land of their forefathers.

The statement puts the Vatican at odds with Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not support the establishment of a Palestinian state.

At a Mass on Manger Square, the head of the Roman Catholic Church drew applause when he delivered a special message in his homily for the people who were allowed to come to the Mass from the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces staged a massive offensive against militants four months ago.

"In a special way, my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza. 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 hardship, and the suffering you have had to endure," he said.

Israel granted permits to about 100 Christians to leave the Gaza Strip and attend the Mass in Bethlehem.

The enclave is under tight restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on the movement of people and goods, by land, air, and sea. The embargo, which Israel says is due to security reasons, has resulted in shortages of supplies, including construction materials needed to rebuild from the recent war.

In his homily, the pope said he is praying for an end to the closure.

"Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead, and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted," he said.

The pope's schedule included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem that is home to thousands of people whose families were forced from their lands in 1948 upon the creation of the State of Israel.

On Thursday, the pope - who says he has come as pilgrim of peace - travels to the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. The city, like others in the Holy Land, has seen its population of Christian residents drop dramatically in recent decades.