BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Pope Benedict witnessed the watchtowers and high walls that seal Bethlehem off from Jerusalem on Wednesday as he entered the Israeli-occupied West Bank and pressed his call for a Palestinian state.
The papal convoy drove slowly through three big steel gates in the fortified barrier of towering concrete slabs which Israel began building between the two holy cities in 2002, to stop a wave of deadly Palestinian bomb attacks.
A warm welcome greeted him along the steep, ancient streets of the town where Jesus Christ was born, from Palestinians gathered in anticipation of hearing the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics back their independence aspirations.
Cheers of Long Live the Pope, Long Live Palestine rose up as Benedict began his first visit to Bethlehem as pontiff.
The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with your neighbors, within internationally recognized borders, he told Palestininan President Mahmoud Abbas at a ceremony shortly after crossing from Israel.
The two-state solution is supported by Abbas, Arab nations and Western powers. But the new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declined so far to endorse it. This will be a focus of his talks next week with U.S. President Barack Obama.
In his address, Abbas denounced Israel's apartheid wall as part of efforts by the Jewish state to drive Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land.
The Palestinian president spoke of oppression, tyranny and land expropriation and said Palestinians wanted a future with no occupation, no checkpoints, no walls, no prisoners, no refugees.
Palestinians were fervently hoping that the pope, too, would call for the removal of the wall.
MANGER SQUARE MASS
A Palestinian flag nearly the size of a building hung before the pope as he said Mass for about 5,000 people in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity that marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born in a stable.
Applause broke out when he expressed concern for Palestinians in the Hamas Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip, where over 1,000 were killed in an Israeli offensive in January. He said he was praying that Israel's embargo on Gaza will soon be lifted.
It was strange, he said, that Bethlehem was associated with the joy and renewal of Jesus's birth yet here in our midst, how far this magnificent promise seems from being realized.
The square was packed with Palestinian Christians and some had tears in their eyes as the pope arrived.
There are fewer and fewer of us Palestinian Christians but we have strength, said Kandra Zreineh, a 45-year-old mother of four from a village near Bethlehem. We are proud to have this visit because we are small and I believe he may be able to make a difference for us. I still believe in miracles.
Thousands of Christians have left Bethlehem since a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000. It was met with an Israeli security clampdown and the construction of the barrier, which cripples freedom of movement.
Abbas, who like most Palestinians is Muslim, described the hardships faced by his people, including the tens of thousands of Christians whose community is shrinking through emigration.
On this Holy Land, there are those who continue to build separation walls, instead of bridges, and who try with the occupation forces to compel both Christians and Muslims alike to leave the country, the Palestinian leader said.
Israel's actions in the name of security were changing holy places into mere archaeological sites, rather than places of worship, alive and bustling with believers.
Jerusalem ... is surrounded by the apartheid wall which prevents our people from the West Bank from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque, he added.
In his arrival address, Benedict acknowledged Israel's security concerns as well as Palestinian suffering, and urged people not to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.
A full day of events in the West Bank may relieve Vatican officials of the strains that have dogged the German pope in Jerusalem, where Israeli leaders have complained that he did not express enough empathy and regret in remarks he made on Monday at the Yad Vashem memorial to the Jewish dead of the Holocaust.
The pope is due to hold a mass in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, before flying back to the Vatican on Friday.