The Pope calls for Holy Places to be returned to prayer and pilgrims

Vatican City (Fides) - The Pope is deeply concerned about the tragic situation in the Holy Land, in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity in particular. During his midday Sunday prayer with the people in St Peter's Square, John Paul II turned again to invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Our prayer, the Pope said, 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. 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. Every day in prayer I go in spirit to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Nativity, where I spent unforgettable moments during my 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 conditions of all the Church's occupants are critical: they are without food, water or electricity, there are decaying corpses and two days ago telephone lines were cut. An Israeli-Palestinian commission, meant to negotiate a solution to the impasse, has been unable even to meet for reasons said by many observers to be "trivial".

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!"

21. april 2002