Pope to meet Abbas, hold mass in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Tue May 12, 2009 6:18pm EDT

1 of 19. Pope Benedict XVI waves at the crowd from his Popemobile as he arrives to lead a mass at the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem May 12, 2009, where it is believed Jesus had his final prayer before he was betrayed and arrested.

Credit: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will spend Wednesday in the town of Jesus' birth, where Palestinians hope his visit to the West Bank will draw attention to their plight under Israeli occupation.

The German-born pope will celebrate mass in Bethlehem, just outside Jerusalem, and meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the third day of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that is so far marked by Israeli complaints that he has failed to show enough sympathy to Jewish suffering in the Nazi Holocaust.

Patriarch Fouad Twal, during a mass in Jerusalem Tuesday, reiterated before the pope the Palestinian people's aspirations for a "free and independent state."

The pope himself, on his arrival in Israel Monday, reaffirmed Vatican support for a Palestinian state, something new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been reluctant to accept as a necessary outcome of negotiations.

To dramatize the impact of Israeli occupation on their lives, Palestinians have set up a small amphitheatre by a high concrete wall that forms part of the barrier that Israeli is building in and around the West Bank.

They said they ignored orders by Israel, which says it needs the barrier to keep out suicide bombers and others threats to its people, not to complete the amphitheatre. It remains unclear if the pope will use it when he speaks at the Aida refugee camp.

Israel's parliament speaker Tuesday evoked the pope's teenage membership of the Hitler Youth and berated him over his address a day earlier at Israel's memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

A Vatican spokesman said the German-born pope was not an "active participant" in the Nazi movement and was enrolled against his will. He later served with the German armed forces.

The pope will hold a mass at Nazareth in northern Israel, where Jesus grew up, Thursday. The surrounding Galilee region is where most of the country's 154,000 Christians live and where he will meet Netanyahu.

He flies back to Rome Friday.

(Writing by Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem, Editing by Jon Boyle)

(For a graphic on the Pope's trip see here )

(For more on faith and ethics, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at blogs.reuters.com/faithworld )

(For more on Israel and the Palestinian territories, see our blog AxisMundi Jerusalem at blogs.reuters.com/axismundi )

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