Pope urges Palestinian refugees to look to future

Catholic News Service/ L’Osservatore Romano

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Pope Francis told young Palestinian refugees to look to the future and to always work and strive for the things they wanted.

"Remember that violence cannot be defeated by violence; violence can only be defeated with peace -- with peace, effort and dignity to move the nation forward," he told those who greeted him during a 20-minute visit at the Dehiyshe Refugee Camp's Phoenix Cultural Center.

That day, en route to the Bethlehem Mass, he made an unscheduled stop to pray before a controversial separation wall, built by Israel over Palestinian protests, between its territory and the West Bank. The pope unexpectedly stopped the vehicle and alighted, then walked over to the graffiti-covered structure and rested his forehead against it in silence for a few moments. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, later confirmed that the pope had been praying as he stood against the wall.

Father Lombardi told journalists the stop was a very important symbol of the pope's understanding of the significance of the wall and was a manifestation of his identification with the suffering of the people, even though he made no mention of the wall in his spoken statements. 

As Pope Francis arrived he was warmly welcomed by the center directors and representatives of the camp. He entered the center flanked by a boy and a girl in traditional dress. A large white chair was brought out immediately so he could sit inside the main hall.

Children wearing white caps and shirts held up signs in English and Arabic with slogans such as "I've never seen the sea" and "I want freedom of worship."

Speaking in Spanish, which was translated into Arabic by a Franciscan father, Pope Francis said he had understood the children's English words, and the Arabic had been translated for him.

"I understand what you are telling me and the message you are giving me," he said. "Don't ever allow the past to determine your life, always look forward. But do and act and strive for the things you want."

A boy from the camp welcomed the pope in the name of all the children and told him that the camp was a symbol of Palestinian suffering.

"We Palestinian Christians and Muslims believe in one God, who created the world, and we were created not to fight and be divided but to be united," said the boy, whose name was not released. "We children of Palestine have not lost hope for the future, and your visit to Bethlehem strengthens our feeling that we must have peace even though we are living under the oppressive occupation of our country. We appreciate all the values you represent, and we would like to live in peace and dignity in our land and our country. "

He told the pope that the Palestinians were in need of his prayers and support to rid themselves of the occupation.

The children sang a song of brotherhood and unity in Italian, then sang a song of longing for their land in Arabic.

"We send you peace from the land of our ancestors," they sang.

After they finished the pope complimented the children on their singing, and they presented him with a large carved olivewood arm and hand grasping a key, symbolic of the homes they lost.

"May God bless you, and I ask that you pray for me," Pope Francis said.

As he walked out, the pontiff stopped to shake the hands of the children, spending a few moments with them. 

Families tell pope their concerns during lunch in Bethlehem

When Elias Abu Mohor entered the Casa Nova convent for lunch with Pope Francis, he was surprised to realize he would be sitting at the same table with the pontiff.

Abu Mohor, 44, and his wife Juliet Bannoura, 36, of the neighboring village of Beit Jalla, were among families chosen to eat with the pope after the Mass in Bethlehem May 25. The five -- including one Muslim family -- represented urgent issues facing the Palestinian community, including land confiscation, imprisonment, displacement from their homes and the situation of people trapped by the embargo of the Gaza Strip.

Abu Mohor told Catholic News Service the first day he was informed his family had been chosen he was in disbelief, but he said he used the opportunity to present Pope Francis with a map showing the encroachment of lands by Israel.

Speaking to the pope is Spanish, he expressed the concerns of families in the Cremisan Valley, where Israel has confiscated land for its separation barrier, sometimes splitting people's property.

Each of the families chosen told the pope about issues they faced. Most spoke in Arabic, with their concerns translated into Spanish.

Shadia Sbait, 42, who works in the field of banking, and her husband George, 50, a martial arts instructor, traveled from the northern Galilee village of Kafar Yassif. They and their children Nicole, 15, and Caesar, 13, represented the families of Ikrit and Biram.

In the late 1940s, after the creation of the Jewish state, residents of the two Catholic Arab villages were displaced with the promises that they would be permitted to return after two weeks. That never happened, and descendants of the residents, who now live in various villages and cities in northern Israel, have peacefully pursued legal recourses to be permitted to return.

Before the meeting, Shadia Sbait said she would ask Pope Francis to bring up their concerns when he met the following day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I am not a very religious person but I believe in miracles -- and the power of the personality of the pope," she said. 

See more stories from Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land at

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