On Wednesday afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, home to Muslims and Christians. The Pope expressed his solidarity with "all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace, or to live permanently in a homeland of their own."
At the all-girls’ school inside the refugee camp, he began by thanking U.N. Relief and Works Agency officials for caring for the refugees. He extended a greeting to the teachers and pupils of the school.
"By your commitment to education you are expressing hope in the future," the Holy Father remarked. "Parents have a most important role here, and to all the families present in this camp I say: be sure to support your children in their studies and to nurture their gifts, so that there will be no shortage of well-qualified personnel to occupy leadership positions in the Palestinian community in the future.
"I know that many of your families are divided, through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement, and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities," he continued. "Please be assured that all Palestinian refugees across the world, especially those who lost homes and loved ones during the recent conflict in Gaza, are constantly remembered in my prayers."
The Pontiff recognized the work carried out by Church agencies in caring for refugees in the Palestinian Territories. He mentioned the work of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, founded some sixty years ago to coordinate Catholic humanitarian assistance for refugees, and the "enormous contribution" made by different members of the Franciscan, making themselves "instruments of peace," in the time-honored phrase attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi.
"How much the people of this camp, these Territories, and this entire region long for peace!" Pope Benedict said. "In these days, that longing takes on a particular poignancy as you recall the events of May 1948 and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events."
"You are now living in precarious and difficult conditions, with limited opportunities for employment," he added. "It is understandable that you often feel frustrated."
"Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached, the wall," Benedict XVI remarked. "In a world where more and more borders are being opened up, to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges, it is tragic to see walls still being erected."
The Pope reminded those present that great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome, if the urge to retaliate for loss or injury is to be resisted. "It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after years of fighting," he explained. "Yet history has shown that peace can only come when the parties to a conflict are willing to move beyond their grievances and work together towards common goals, each taking seriously the concerns and fears of the other, striving to build an atmosphere of trust."
"Humanitarian aid, of the kind provided in this camp, has an essential role to play, but the long-term solution to a conflict such as this can only be political," he continued. "I am reminded of those other beautiful words attributed to Saint Francis: "where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon … where there is darkness, light, where there is sadness, joy."
Pope Benedict concluded by renewing his plea for a commitment to cultivate peace and non-violence, "following the example of Saint Francis and other great peacemakers." "Peace has to begin in the home, in the family, in the heart," he expounded. "May peace flourish once more in these lands!"