VATICAN: Pope meets with Palestinian leader

Pope Benedict XVI held talks on Saturday about the Middle East with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who invited him to visit the Holy Land. "You will be very welcome in Jerusalem and all the holy places," Abbas told the pope after their private 20-minute meeting in the pontiff's library. "Thank you very much," the pope replied. Both men were smiling and appeared relaxed.

Abbas, speaking English, later told journalists that Benedict "responded positively" to his invitation but indicated no date. Last month, Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited Benedict to Israel, and said he hoped the pope would visit next year.

That appeared to be a reference to extremist elements blamed for violence and terrorism. Violence marred primary elections across the Palestinian territories earlier in the week, but Abbas told reporters that he was working to "bring calm" in the Palestinian territories. The Vatican noted that the talks covered the "difficulties" of Catholics in the Palestinian territories.

Catholics amount to just over 1 percent of the population in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Their numbers are dwindling because of widespread emigration. Palestinian Christians have faced a number of difficulties, including restrictions in movement, violence and sometimes not be able to visit the sacred sites where Jesus once worked.

Abbas said he briefed the pontiff about the conditions in which Palestinians, especially Christians, live. "I asked for his support and help in easing the difficult problems that the Palestinian people suffer," the Palestinian leader said.

Abbas said that the pope, with "the symbolic weight that he has in the international community, can carry out a decisive role for peace." One of the members in the Palestinian delegation presented the pope with a document that Abbas later said was fashioned by Bethlehem's inhabitants "to express the ties of friendship and spirituality that link the Vatican with Bethlehem, a place dear to Christians as Jesus' birthplace.

The delegate, who was not immediately identified by the Vatican, and the pope chatted in German briefly as Benedict examined the document. Abbas' Vatican visit, including a meeting with secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was his last major appointment of a three-day visit to Italy, the AP reported. On Friday, Abbas promised "security and transparency" in next month's parliamentary elections.

Pope John Paul II's first meeting in 1982 with Abbas' predecessor, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1982, sparked protests in Israel and in the worldwide Jewish community. The Vatican under John Paul II consistently championed rights for the Palestinian people, while at the same time greatly improving relations with Israel. A.M.

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