Ending the siege on Gaza and establishing a Homeland for Palestinians were two of the requests Pope Benedict XVI made during his first two speeches in Bethlehem on Wednesday.

Expectations for the pope have been mixed as the Holy Father’s trip to the region came at a delicate time; just less than four months after the last shell was dropped on Gaza, three days before scheduled unity talks and only hours after a foiled attempt by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a new caretaker government.

As he received the pope at the presidential compound, Abbas called on Benedict to help end the suffering of the Palestinian people, establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital living beside Israel, and to help guarantee the right of return for Palestinian refugees guaranteed under UN Resolution 194; A tall order for a figure also trying to mend fences with Israeli leaders following two issues over the Holy See and the Holocaust.

The Holy Father’s response was heartening, however. Responding to Abbas Benedict empathized with the plight of the Palestinians: “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 been left homeless. This afternoon I will pay a visit to the Aida Refugee Camp, in order to express my solidarity with the people who have lost so much.”

Also in his speech the pope announced that “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 its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.”

The pontiff recognized Palestinians’ right “to contact between family members and access to the holy places,” and 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.”

Pilgrims travel to Bethlehem by thousands

Busloads of pilgrims from Europe and South America waited for the pope in Manger Square. For many of the devout, politics was not one of the reasons they travelled to the Holy Land. Peter Berac, a 27-year-old pilgrim from Croatia, travelled to Bethlehem specifically for the pontifical visit.

“I came here to see the pope and hear some words from him for my life,” he said shortly before the pope gave mass. “I have gone on pilgrimages before and every time it makes me very happy.”

Berac travelled to Bethlehem for personal reasons. He said he hopes words from the pope will “give me strength for tomorrow, for every day. I came here to get energy.”

An Irish pilgrim, Kevin Beasley, arrived in Tel Aviv Wednesday morning to visit a friend, but travelled to Bethlehem to see the pope on a whim. “I don’t know everything about the politics here,” he said “but obviously the Palestinian people need a hand up, and if the pope can speak for them, maybe that will help them in the future.”

A Canadian Seminarian, Kevin McDonald, 34, from Cornwall, ON, Canada, confessed ignorance over the Palestinian political situation. Asked his reaction to the pope’s strong words about the Gaza siege, he confessed, “I couldn’t even hear the pop’s speech.”

“I’m 34 years old and I’ve never experienced violence or turmoil,” the man added, “I think the most violence I’ve ever been through is being pushed around here,

[in the crowd].”

The political implications of the pilgrimage were not missed by the pope himself, however. In his address to the waiting pilgrims, Benedict continued his political message, “In a special way my heart goes out to all 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.”

Also among the devout were a hundred or so Gazans, given permission to leave the Strip for the pontifical visit. Near the end of the pontiff’s address the crowd erupted into chants, “Viva Al-Baba, Viva Gaza” and thousands waved Palestinian flags.

Pilgrims come and leave

The thousands of Pilgrims are not doing much for the local economy, however. “All the tourists come here for one or two hours then leave. I can’t make much money from this,” said Manger Square Shawarma shop owner Omar Showriya as 8,000 pilgrims packed the square outside his restaurant with cheers for the Pope, about to give mass.

“When the pope came in 2000 the situation was better,” he said, “then in 2006 the Israeli army killed a boy, here, in front of my shop,” he points to a poster commemorating the death of a martyr beside the shop. “The situation is difficult, there is no peace here,” he concludes. After tending to the two foreign tourists buying sandwiches, the owner turns his gaze back out to the pope, who begins his address to the throng outside.

Bethlehem Itinerary

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in a black Mercedes rover and was conducted through the gate adjacent to the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint, or checkpoint 300, and drove to the Presidential compound where he was received by Abbas. He then drove to the Nativity Church where he addressed pilgrims and presided over a pontifical mass at Manger Square, packed with an estimated 8,000.

Following the mass the Holy Father will meet with the parents of two Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, apparently in an attempt to balance a visit earlier this week with the parents of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Of the families he will meet with one is Christian and the other Muslim. He will also meet with a delegation from Gaza.

Following his meetings the pontiff will drive across Bethlehem to the Aida Refugee Camp, where he is expected to present locals with 50,000 euros for the building of three new classrooms in the camp’s school where is will be hosted. The school building will also have a cultural exhibition prepared by the children of the camp.

Among his gifts, a piece of wall

Among the gifts Benedict is set to receive Wednesday is a piece of the 30 foot high concrete separation wall that snakes around Bethlehem. The concrete will be presented to the pope by the municipal council of Bethlehem. He will also be presented carved stones from Tiberius and Jerusalem with maps of the Holy Land inscribed on them, calligraphic scrolls with the Gospel of Luke inscribed on them, and a traditional Palestinian scarf with symbolic embroidery covering one side.

Under Heavy Guard

In preparation for the pontifical visit the Palestinian Authority (PA) deployed 3000 security officers in Bethlehem including members of the presidential guards. A curfew has been imposed in the streets and neighborhoods where the Pope’s convoy will pass.