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Pope Meets Abbas, Calls For Palestinian State

President Mahmud Abbas (left) with Pope Benedict XVI in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on May 13
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) -- Pope Benedict XVI has traveled to the West Bank, offering Vatican support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel and the comfort of Christian faith to Palestinian refugees in the town of Jesus Christ's birth.

After traveling through the snaking Israeli security walls that separate Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem on the third day of a tour of the Holy Land, the pope was greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who accused Israel of trying to drive out Muslims and Christians through burdensome security measures.

Benedict, speaking in bright morning sunshine, renewed the Vatican's support for a two-state solution to the conflict -- a solution supported by major Western powers but which new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reluctant to endorse fully.

"I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades. My heart goes out to all the families who have lost so much," he said, adding that he would visit a refugee camp for families who fled what is now Israel at its founding in 1948.

He had particular words of concern for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who suffered during an Israeli offensive in January.

Addressing Abbas, he said: "Mr. President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with your neighbors, within internationally recognized borders."

On his first visit to the region, the pope recalled the message on a similar trip in 2000 by his immediate predecessor, John Paul II: "There can be no 'peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness,'" Benedict said.

Abbas, who like most Palestinians is Muslim, described the hardships faced by his people, including tens of thousands of Christians.

He said: "In this holy land, there are those who continue to build separation walls instead of bridges and who try with occupation forces to compel Christians and Muslims alike to leave the country, so that the holy places turn into mere archaeological sites, rather than living places of worship."

Thousands of Christians from Bethlehem have gone abroad since a Palestinian uprising in the years after 2000 saw an Israeli security clampdown and construction of the barrier that runs through and around the West Bank, restricting movement.

"All types of oppression, tyranny and land expropriation are being exercised against all Arab citizens, Christian and Muslims," Abbas told the pope.

Acknowledging Israel's security concerns, Benedict said: "It is my earnest hope that the serious concerns involving security in Israel and the Palestinian territories will soon be allayed sufficiently to allow greater freedom of movement."

He urged people not to " terrorism."

The pope is expected to visit the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born in a manger. He will say mass in Manger Square outside and also visit a refugee camp where residents hope he will see and comment on the towering wall Israeli forces have built next to it.

The move to the West Bank may relieve Vatican officials of the strains that have dogged the German-born pope in Jerusalem, where Israeli leaders have complained that he did not go far enough in offering emotion in remarks he made on Monday at the Yad Vashem memorial to the Jewish dead of the Holocaust.

The pope flies back to Rome on May 15.