BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Standing within view of Israel's imposing concrete wall, Pope Benedict XVI told Palestinian refugees Wednesday that the barrier is a stark reminder of the political stalemate that's stymied every effort to bring peace to this part of the Middle East.
After becoming the first Roman Catholic pope to see the graffiti-covered, 25-foot-tall wall outside the Biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ, Benedict urged Palestinians to set aside entrenched bitterness and pursue courageous reconciliation with Israel.
"Although walls can be easily built, we all know that they do not last forever," Benedict said before leaving Bethlehem. "They can be taken down. First, though, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors."
Wednesday's visit to the Palestinian refugee camp marked the most overtly political chapter of Benedict's eight-day Middle East pilgrimage.
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While the pope began the trip by declaring his plans to avoid politics, Benedict devoted much of his day in the West Bank to the almost-unavoidable issue.
In his first meeting of the day, Benedict told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he strongly supports establishment of a Palestinian state as the best way to bring peace to the region.
The 82-year-old pope held a private meeting Wednesday evening with about two-dozen Christian Palestinians from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip who received special permission from Israel to travel to the West Bank for the pope's visit.
In their meeting, participants said, the group urged Benedict to speak out more forcefully against an Israeli-led economic blockade that's prevented the isolated Gaza Strip from rebuilding in the wake of Israel's Christmastime military offensive.
Israel launched the military campaign in a bid to cripple Hamas and deter Palestinian militants from firing rockets at southern Israeli towns. Since Hamas still controls Gaza, Israel refuses to allow critical rebuilding supplies and a normal flow of goods into the Mediterranean strip.
During his afternoon service in Bethlehem's Manger Square with thousands of Christians from around the world, Benedict sent a special greeting to the 1.4 million Gaza residents and said he prays "that the embargo will soon be lifted."
It was his afternoon visit to the small Palestinian refugee camp that was the most anticipated speech of the day, however.
With an Israeli military pillbox in view over his shoulder, Benedict spoke out against the most potent example of the political divide that has deepened since Pope John Paul II became the first Vatican leader to visit Israel nearly a decade ago.
"On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome," Benedict told about 400 Palestinians gathered at the United Nations school.
Israel's still-expanding barrier has come the most potent and divisive symbol of the country's seemingly intractable conflict with Palestinians.
Israel began building the network of walls, electronic fencing, high-tech gates and dirt trenches in 2002 as a way to combat a demoralizing wave of suicide bombings that paralyzed parts of Israel during the second Palestinian uprising.
Despite international condemnation and ongoing legal challenges, Israel is looking to complete the 400-mile long barrier in the next few years.
While Israeli leaders initially argued that the barrier was a temporary security measure, some of the country's politicians have since admitted that it's also a political line.
The route cuts deep into the West Bank to wrap around Israel's largest Jewish settlement blocs that the Israeli government expects to keep in any peace deal with the Palestinians.
Palestinians continue to fight legal battles and stage weekly protests against the barrier, which, in some places, separates Palestinian farmers from their lands and cuts through Palestinian towns.
When it is completed, the barrier could annex up to 10 percent of the West Bank for Israel, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the barriers illegal and called Israel to dismantle the walls.
The political nature of the trip was evident long before Benedict drove alongside the concrete walls in his glass popemobile.
Palestinian leaders initially wanted to host the pope at a stone stage directly underneath the Israeli wall outside the Aida Refugee Camp. Israeli leaders objected, however, and Palestinian organizers shifted the event to the U.N. school across the road.
Palestinian politicians used the pope's visit to highlight their differences with Israel.
As he often has in the past, Abbas referred to the Israel's separation barrier as the "apartheid wall," a comparison to South Africa's past racist government.
Young dancers performing for the pope carried oversized keys on stage to symbolize the longstanding Palestinian demand that wartime refugees forced to flee their homes in what's now Israel eventually be allowed to return.
Palestinians at the school were elated by the pope's speech.
"It was perfect," said Hani, a Christian Palestinian tour bus operator from Bethlehem who asked that his last name not be used because he regularly works in Israel. "He touched the root of the trouble: the occupation."
This section of the Israeli wall has become one of the most popular for international graffiti artists. In 2007, a large contingent of well-known artists gathered in Bethlehem to adorn the wall with graffiti.
On the military pillbox outside the U.N. school is a faded piece by a Miami-born artist known as Swoon. It features a demure woman in profile with a flowing blue skirt.
Below the woman are the remains of a saying Swoon wrote on the wall:
"When the Bay Bridge fell in the last San Francisco earthquake, we learned that structures resonate to a frequency. A vibration that matches their internal rhythm can bring them down. Massive structures tremble and a fence is only as strong as its point of attachment to its base."
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