.- At the site where tradition holds that Jesus' was born, Pope Benedict proclaimed, "do not be afraid" as he challenged the faithful to commit to building "a culture of peace to replace the present stalemate of fear, aggression and frustration."
Manger Square, which includes the Church of the Nativity, was packed with pilgrims from around the world eager to see and hear Pope Benedict.
The spirited crowd waved the flags of their countries, cheered for the Pope and for Palestine as the Holy Father entered the square in the popemobile.
Groups from Poland, Germany, India and the Philippines were among those present, but there were also Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in attendance, a fact noted by the Pope as he began his homily.
"In a special way my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure. Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead, and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted," he said.
The Holy Father then turned to the significance of being in Bethlehem, quoting from St. Luke, "Do not be afraid; for behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy … today in the city of David a Savior is born for you." "The message of Christ’s coming," the Pope said, "brought from heaven by the voice of angels, continues to echo in this town, just as it echoes in families, homes and communities throughout the world. It is 'good news,' the angels say 'for all the people'."
"It proclaims that the Messiah, the Son of God and the Son of David, has been born 'for you'-- for you and me, and for men and women in every time and place."
Noting that for people everywhere "Bethlehem is associated with this joyful message of rebirth, renewal, light and freedom," Benedict XVI pointed out that in today's reality that doesn't seem to be the case.
In the midst of this tumultuous situation, Christians are called to live virtuous lives filled with hope, the Pope said.
This involves "first, the constant conversion to Christ which is reflected not only in our actions but also in our reasoning: the courage to abandon fruitless and sterile ways of thinking, acting and reacting. Then, the cultivation of a mindset of peace based on justice, on respect for the rights and duties of all, and commitment to cooperation for the common good. And also perseverance, perseverance in good and in the rejection of evil."
Pope Benedict said that he wants to leave the people of Bethlehem with a message: "Do not be afraid!"
In their efforts to be a "bridge of dialogue" and to build a "culture of peace," the Holy Father assured them of the Church's support.
He advised the Palestinians to "build up your local Churches, making them workshops of dialogue, tolerance and hope, as well as solidarity and practical charity. Above all, be witnesses to the power of life, the new life brought by the Risen Christ, the life that can illumine and transform even the darkest and most hopeless of human situations."
Real renewal goes beyond creating new economic and community structures, the Pope stressed, saying that what is needed most is "a new 'spiritual' infrastructure, capable of galvanizing the energies of all men and women of good will in the service of education, development and the promotion of the common good."
"You have the human resources to build the culture of peace and mutual respect which will guarantee a better future for your children. This noble enterprise awaits you. Do not be afraid!
"In this way," he assured, "Bethlehem will continue to echo the message entrusted to the shepherds, to us, and to all mankind