BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Kissing Palestinian earth and warmly welcomed by Yasser Arafat, Pope John Paul II today made a prayerful pilgrimage to the town of Jesus' birth that also provided a powerful boost to Palestinian statehood hopes.
It was a momentous day that saw the 79-year-old pope celebrate an open-air mass before a crowd of thousands in Bethlehem's Manger Square and sink to his knees in prayer in the dim grotto where Christian tradition says Christ was born.
``Welcome to our land,'' Arafat told John Paul at a formal reception at the start of the day, the only one spent in Palestinian territory during the pope's weeklong visit to the Holy Land. The pope replied by reaffirming the Palestinians' ``natural right'' to a homeland.
After meeting Arafat, the pope traveled in his bulletproof popemobile to Manger Square for an ecstatic welcome at the traditional site of Christ's birth.
Along the route, Palestinian girls hurled flowers, festooning the hood of the popemobile. In the square, draped with Palestinian and Vatican flags, shouts of ``Viva Baba!'' -- the Arabic adaptation of the word pope -- rang out. Elderly nuns clambered atop stepladders to catch a glimpse of the pontiff, and an older Palestinian couple tried to offer him a live goat in a traditional sign of hospitality.
Clad in gold-and-white robes, John Paul waved his hand in greeting and blessed the crowd by saying ``Salaam Aleikum'' -- Arabic for ``Peace be upon you.'' During the two-hour Mass, he leaned heavily on his silver scepter, often bowing his head in prayer.
Hands trembling as he preached from a covered stage outside the fortresslike Church of the Nativity, the pope said Bethlehem lay at the heart of the pilgrimage he had long dreamed of making in this millennial year.
``I praise God for bringing me in this year of the great Jubilee to the place of the Savior's birth,'' he said in a slow but steady voice.
As the pope finished his homily, the Muslim call to prayer rang out from a mosque in the square, and the crowd and the pontiff alike waited silently for the muezzin's wail of ``Allahu Akbar'' -- God is Great -- to end. A few people fidgeted uncomfortably, and a nun shook her head in apparent disbelief.
But a moment later, the crowd applauded when Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, spoke of the muezzin's call as symbolizing Muslim and Christian unity here. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls later said the overlapping of prayers was ``mutual and respectful.''
After a break to rest, the pontiff returned to Manger Square for a quieter visit to the lamplit Church of the Nativity. Its grotto marks the spot revered by many Christians as the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, center, speaks with Pope John Paul II, as Arafat's wife Suha looks on during a meeting in Bethlehem Wednesday, March 22. In the background is a picture of the the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the most important Muslim sites.
Supported by brown-cassocked priests, the pope made his slow and difficult way down a flight of steps into the dim cavelike enclosure. There he sank to his knees, spending several moments in silent prayer amid flickering candles.
Pilgrims called the visit a symbol of peace hopes for all.
``I am elated, overjoyed,'' said the Rev. Thomas McCluskey, a Roman Catholic priest from Belfast, Ireland. ``It is a very historic moment for all three faiths. ... I am very hopeful that good will come out of it.''
Despite the festive mood, security was tight. Streets were closed off and pilgrims' bags were checked at electronic security gates.
Earlier, the Palestinians greeted John Paul with conscious symbols of statehood as his Israeli Blackhawk helicopter touched down under chilly gray skies near Arafat's presidential palace.
The moment the pope stepped off the helicopter, the Palestinians presented him with a golden bowl of soil, to which the pontiff briefly touched to his lips. Along with the Vatican anthem, a band played the Palestinian national song.
In one poignant moment, Arafat, 70, placed a steadying hand on the stooped, bent back of the pontiff. Later, at a Palestinian refugee camp, the two held hands as they slowly walked together.
Addressing the dignitaries at the morning greeting ceremony, the pope referred to ``legitimate Palestinian aspirations'' and the need for peaceful negotiations to realize them.
``The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have a natural right to a homeland,'' the pope said.
Touching on a highly sensitive topic, Arafat referred to ``holy Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine.'' Arafat's translator, speaking in English, used the phrase ``occupied Jerusalem,'' but Arafat himself, speaking in Arabic, did not.
Israel claims the whole city as its own capital, but the Palestinians want to make east Jerusalem the capital of their long-sought independent state.
Independence wishes were showcased at Bethlehem's sprawling, dusty Dheisheh refugee camp, where the pope got a firsthand look at the cramped living conditions of 10,000 refugees from the 1948 Mideast war and their descendants. The refugees were forced to leave their homes during the war and are still fighting to return.
The Vatican described it as a humanitarian visit, but political overtones were unmistakable. English-language graffiti on the walls read: ``We want to return to our homeland.''
The pope told the refugees -- whom he addressed as ``dear Palestinian people'' -- that he deeply sympathized with their plight. ``This visit will help draw attention to the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind,'' he said.
Afterwards, the pope talked with Arafat before boarding a helicopter for a flight back to Jerusalem, where he is spending the night.
The mood at the meeting was lighthearted, with the pope jokingly correcting the Palestinian leader when he misstated the number of Stations of the Cross. But John Paul left Arafat on a more serious note, counseling ``patience and courageous dialogue'' he said would ``offer the way to the future your people rightly desire.''
Arafat watched the pontiff's helicopter disappear into the twilit pink skies. ``This is the Holy Land,'' he said. ``He blessed us on it.''
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