Bethlehem is first referred to in the Bible in relation to the death of Rachel and is identified with the Euphrates (the fruitful). In the sacred books it is called “Bethlehem of Judea”, the tribe to which it belonged. David was born and consecrated a king by the prophet Samuel there, and with the birth of Jesus, the smallest of Israel's cities gained worldwide importance and grew due to the influx of pilgrims. In the year 135, the emperor Adrian introduced the cult of Adonis but Christianity was restored in 330 by Constantine. Following the Islamic conquest in 638, the Caliph Omar initiated a policy of religious tolerance, but with the arrival of the crusading army in 1099, the Muslims devastated the city. In 1100 the crusader king of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, was consecrated. The Arab reconquest in 1187 and the subsequent Ottoman occupation marked the decline of the citadel which by 1600 had been reduced to a small village. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the city, the majority of whose inhabitants were Christians, began a revival. In 1831, the Pasha of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, conquered the city, and the Muslims, allies of the Ottomans, were driven out and their quarters burned. Ten years later, the city fell under Ottoman control once again. Under British rule from 1918, it became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946. In 1967, following the so-called Six Days War, it was occupied by the Israeli army, along with east Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. Since 1995 it has been part of the Autonomous Palestinian Territories following the Oslo Accords (now the State of Palestine). The then-president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, ordered the construction of the presidential Palace which today receives the Pope's visit.
The Holy Father, accompanied by President Abbas, was greeted by various representatives of the Palestinian Christian communities from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who delivered various messages, and then transferred to the Great Hall where he was awaited by the Palestinian authorities and members of the Diplomatic Corps, whom he addressed.
“For decades the Middle East has known the tragic consequences of a protracted conflict which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal”, he began. “Even in the absence of violence, the climate of instability and a lack of mutual understanding have produced insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation and the flight of entire communities, conflicts, shortages and sufferings of every sort. In expressing my closeness to those who suffer most from this conflict, I wish to state my heartfelt conviction that the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable. For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security. The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good, the courage to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgement by all of the right of two States to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders”.
“To this end, I can only express my profound hope that all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement, and that peace will be pursued with tireless determination and tenacity. Peace will bring countless benefits for the peoples of this region and for the world as a whole. And so it must resolutely be pursued, even if each side has to make certain sacrifices”, he emphasised. “I pray that the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and their respective leaders will undertake this promising journey of peace with the same courage and steadfastness needed for every journey. Peace in security and mutual trust will become the stable frame of reference for confronting and resolving every other problem, and thus provide an opportunity for a balanced development, one which can serve as a model for other crisis areas”.
He then referred with affection to the active Christian community, “which contributes significantly to the common good of society, sharing in the joys and sufferings of the whole people. Christians desire to continue in this role as full citizens, along with their fellow citizens, whom they regard as their brothers and sisters. Mr President, our recent meeting in the Vatican and my presence today in Palestine attest to the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine. I trust that these relations can further develop for the good of all. In this regard, I express my appreciation for the efforts being made to draft an agreement between the parties regarding various aspects of the life of the Catholic community in this country, with particular attention to religious freedom. Respect for this fundamental human right is, in fact, one of the essential conditions for peace, fraternity and harmony. It tells the world that it is possible and necessary to build harmony and understanding between different cultures and religions. It also testifies to the fact that, since the important things we share are so many, it is possible to find a means of serene, ordered and peaceful coexistence, accepting our differences and rejoicing that, as children of the one God, we are all brothers and sisters”.
“Mr President, dear brothers gathered here in Bethlehem: may Almighty God bless you, protect you and grant you the wisdom and strength needed to continue courageously along the path to peace, so that swords will be turned into ploughshares and this land will once more flourish more in prosperity and concord. Salaam!”