BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Pope Benedict on Wednesday said the fortified Israeli wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem could be taken down, if Israel and the Palestinians could remove the walls around their hearts.

On a visit to the town where Christians believe the son of God was born, he said he had seen overshadowing much of Bethlehem, the wall that intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families.

Although walls can be easily built, we all know that they do not last forever, the pope said. They can be taken down.

First, though, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, he added at the end of a day spent in Jesus's birthplace in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

My earnest wish for you, the people of Palestine, is that this will happen soon, he said, before returning to Jerusalem and continuing a week-long tour of the Holy Land.

In a speech at a refugee camp school in the wall's shadow, he called it a towering symbol of deadlock in the struggle for peace and a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Palestinians and Israelis seemed to have reached.

How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built, Benedict said.

The wall did not exist when his predecessor John Paul came in 2000. Israel began raising its barrier of fences and concrete through and around the West Bank in 2002, in what it said was a temporary measure to stop deadly Palestinian bombings.

Palestinians, backed by the World Court, say it is an illegal construction which steals and divides their land.

The papal convoy drove the few miles south from Jerusalem, passing slowly through steel gates in the fortified barrier of towering concrete slabs and watchtowers, to reach the town.


Cheers of Long Live the Pope, Long Live Palestine greeted his black limousine along the steep, ancient streets, from Palestinians gathered to hear the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics back their independence aspirations.

The oppressed have become oppressors, said one graffiti slogan on the grey concrete barrier that formed a dramatic backdrop to the pope's speech at the Basic Boys' School.

Bridges, not walls! said another.

It is understandable that you often feel frustrated, the pope said. Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state, remain unfulfilled. Instead you find yourselves trapped ... in a spiral of violence.

It was imagery and language Palestinians had hoped for. But the German-born pope, criticized for what Jews saw as a lack of emotion in his condemnation of the Holocaust, stressed he saw two sides to the conflict and urged an end to all violence.

Repeating a message he has delivered since the start of his first Middle East tour on Friday, the pope said on arrival in Bethelehem that the Vatican supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with your neighbors.

The two-state solution is backed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by Arab nations and the West. Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declined so far to endorse it.

He was due to meet the pope in Nazareth on Thursday.

Abbas said the apartheid wall was a bid by the Jewish state to drive Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land. He spoke of oppression, tyranny and land expropriation and said Palestinians wanted a future with no occupation, no checkpoints, no walls, no prisoners, no refugees.

The pope 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 to Mary in a stable.

It was strange, Pope Benedict said, that Bethlehem was associated with the joy of Jesus's birth yet here in our midst, how far this magnificent promise seems from being realized.

They applauded when he said he prayed that Israel's embargo will soon be lifted from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where up to 1,400 were killed in a 3-week Israeli offensive in January.

Thousands of Christians left Bethlehem after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 and was met by an Israeli security clampdown and the start of construction of the barrier.

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.

On his arrival, Benedict acknowledged Israel's security concerns, and urged people not to resort to acts of violence or terrorism but to seek a genuine peace with their neighbors.

On both sides of the wall, he said, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome.