Pope Benedict surprised many commentators when, just minutes after stepping off his plane in Tel Aviv, he called for a homeland for both Israelis and Palestinians. Many expected, and applauded, his strong denunciation of anti-Semitism. But few expected him to bring up the issue of Palestinian statehood so quickly.
Two hours after his brief speech on Monday, I was in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. "Refugee camps" in Bethlehem aren't tent cities in the desert--they are urban areas, usually run down, and made up of Palestinians who were displaced in the 1940s from villages in what is now Israel.
Today, the Palestinians at Aida were putting the finishing touches on the stage and school areas Pope Benedict will visit on Wednesday. One middle-aged man--his actions clearly sanctioned by camp organizers--spray-painted the words "POPE You Are Welcome in Palestine" near the Separation Wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem. "Palestine" is not a country that everyone recognizes. The pope prays that someday people will.
Catholic Relief Services cares about this issue because without a statehood decision, people suffer, stay poor, or grow poorer. Politics is never the only reason for poverty, but political tensions definitely contribute to it in the Holy Land.
Groups like CRS can offer short-term help, like food or temporary jobs. A few years ago, CRS helped fund part of a youth center at Aida camp. Girl scouts were practicing on drums in the center today, getting ready for a papal procession down the camp's streets on Wednesday. Building the youth center provided jobs to Palestinians in an area where work is extremely hard to find. It's getting harder because of Israeli access restrictions sparked by fear of Palestinian attacks.
But Pope Benedict was not speaking of temporary solutions; he spoke of a political solution that could bring about an end of fear on both sides. He spoke of trust--the trust one person has when he knows the other person won't hurt him. With that to build on, peace is possible.
Laura Sheahen, Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services/Middle East, is in the Holy Land this week for Pope Benedict XVI's visit. Here she blogs about the day the pope arrived in Jerusalem, May 11.