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Pope Prays at Birthplace of Jesus

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- ``Bethlehem is the heart of my pilgrimage,'' Pope John Paul II proclaimed with trembling emotion at an outdoor Mass in Manger Square attended by Yasser Arafat, who was sitting in the front row clutching a prayer book in his hands.

``It is always Christmas in Bethlehem,'' the Pope continued.

His words drew prolonged applause that echoed off ancient walls, shuttered souvenir shops, new Arab banks and the Mosque of Omar. In deference to the pope's visit, the mosque had delayed the speakers who loudly call the Muslim faithful to midday prayer from its minaret.

The mostly Christian crowd appeared genuinely moved when the pontiff lifted his eyes to rain-threatening skies and prayed ``for a new era of peace and understanding in the Holy Land.''

Less than two months from his 80th birthday, John Paul II seemed especially animated here. He stood a bit more erect, leaned less on his pastoral cross and the blue eyes flashed their old sparkle when he intoned in Arabic ``Salaam aleikum'': ``Peace Be With You.''

Local merchants like Michael Saleh predicted that Bethlehem will soon have a street named for Pope John Paul II, an honor accorded to Paul VI after his visit here in 1964.

``Why not?,'' asked Saleh, whose religious articles shop is just across from the outdoor altar. ``He is a good man, the same age as me, and he brought us many customers. Business has been bad. The Americans have not been coming like before. They are afraid.''

Bethlehem Mayor Hana Nasser, a Catholic, and Arafat's wife, Soha, made a surprise visit to the scribes laboring in the upstairs press room in city hall. They disclosed that, indeed, the street leading out to Bethlehem University would be renamed Pope John Paul II Street.

Visiting the Old and New Testament sites in the Holy Land has been the cherished dream of John Paul II's nearly 22-year papacy. But Bethlehem, where a shepherd boy named David grew up to become a king -- and where shepherds knelt to a newborn king -- symbolized for this modern shepherd of his flock the geographical link to both sacred traditions.

A crowd estimated at 5,000 serenaded the pontiff with frequent chants of ``ya ish il baba,'' or ``Long live the Pope'' in Arabic. In English, they shouted out football-like cheers of ``John Paul Two, we love you'' to the pounding beat of ``block that kick.''

The choir of children from Jerusalem and West Bank Catholic parishes was augmented by Taleen, a 12-year-old soprano from Springfield, Va. whose mother, Sylva Balian, lives in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. The one-name prodigy has performed at the White House and made her most recent appearance singing ``The Star Spangled Banner'' at a Washington Wizards basketball game.

``We have today not as many people as at Christmas, and much less than at our new year's millennium celebration, but much better behaving,'' observed Suha Hananeh, office manager of the Palace hotel, directly behind the altar site.

The crowd may have been thinned by the fog and mist shrouding the nearby hills, where Scripture says Mary and Joseph made their way from Nazareth to be enrolled in the census proclaimed by the Roman emperor Augustus. But the sun broke out and glittered on the pope's golden chalice just as the mayor and his entourage joined the procession bringing up the altar gifts.

``The politicians always have to get into the act,'' grumbled Sister Edwina, a Polish nun teaching in a school in the West Bank. ``The Pope was nearly an hour late starting Mass because Arafat kept him yakking at his palace.''

Beyond the crowd, on the facade of the Merchant Discount Bank, the pope's gaze could take in a a two-story high portrait of himself greeting Yasser Arafat. Two more posters the same size loomed over the pope's shoulders on the new peace building -- a splash of personal advertising on the part of the Palestinian leader that even Fidel Castro refrained from at the papal mass at Havana's Revolutionary Square.

Vatican and Palestinian flags fluttered from the lampposts along with Bethlehem's Christmas lights. ``We left the lights hanging because having the Holy Father here is like Christmas all over again in the city of Christmas,'' explained retired bank director Michael Sleivi.

The mass was conducted mostly in English and Latin, with hymns in Arabic, beneath a sloping canopy in gold and white Vatican colors that suggested the star the wise men followed to Bethlehem.

On the pontiff's left rose the massive Basilica of the Nativity, begun in the fourth century by the emperor Constantine over the cave reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Custody of the basilica, where the pope afterwards descended to the cave for private prayers, is shared by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests -- sometimes quite contentiously.

``Muslim children are delighted the pope has come, because all schools in Bethlehem are closed,'' remarked Tony Kitini, a blackjack dealer at the new casino in Jericho. ``So he is their hero, too.''



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