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March 25, 2000
Column #969


     Pope John Paul II is physically frail, but he spoke with powerful moral authority about the ''degrading'' and ''barely tolerable'' refugee camps that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have had to live in since Israel took their land 52 years ago.

     ''No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades.  Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long,'' the pope said.

     However, what he saw in the Dehaisheh Camp, where 10,000 people are forced to live in less than one densely packed square mile - HAS been ignored by the Israelis, by the millions of Christian tourists who whisk by such camps in tourist buses, and by the Western press.

     I remember how shocked I was in visiting the camps in 1988 during the ''intifada,'' the uprisings which ultimately sparked negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. In Gaza camps, raw sewage flowed in gutters along very narrow streets, down to a cesspool of stinking filth. Every window had been knocked out by Israeli soldiers. Unemployment was over 50 percent.

     The intifada violence was grossly disproportionate. Yet that was not being reported. The Washington Post and The New York Times ran daily stories about Arab youth throwing rocks. At the time of my visit, 195 Palestinian youth had been killed vs. only two Israeli soldiers. And 20,000 Palestinians had been injured, according to UN officials who supervise the camps, vs only 210 injured Israeli soldiers. Thus, Palestinian death and injury rates were 100 times higher!

     Thankfully, that era of violence is over. But the Palestinian camps remain, and the Pope is the first world leader in my knowledge to visit them, bringing the world's press to see the squalor that a million Palestinians are forced to live in.

     In the Dehaisheh Camp, the pope spoke in a school courtyard, articulating a more empathetic understanding of the hardships of refugee life than many Palestinians had ever heard from an outsider. But as he talked of their deprivation, many of the refugees milled about, chatting as if what he had to say was irrelevant.

     Why? Incredibly, his speech, which was in English, was not translated into Arabic. ''So the pope's piercing words sailed over their heads into the chill of the afternoon,'' wrote The New York Times. ''You have been deprived of many things which represent the basic needs of the human person: proper housing, health care, education and work,'' he said. ''Above all, you bear the sad memories of what you were forced to leave behind, not just material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives, and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions.''

     When they learned what they had missed, several refugees said that if they had understood, the pope's words would have been drowned out in cheers.

     The papal gesture did move Suha Arafat, the wife of Yasir Arafat, to exultantly tell reporters that the pope's presence was ''a clear message for an independent state,'' which it was.

     On Thursday, the pope visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, laid a wreath in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi genocide, among them childhood friends from Poland. He also expressed contrition for Christian persecution of Jews throughout history, and called for a new relationship between the two faiths based on their common roots:

''As bishop of Rome and successor the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.''

     Some Jews were disappointed that he did not assign any blame to the Catholic hierarchy. or mention Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff accused of being silent during the Holocaust. However, Roosevelt and Churchill were also silent.

     The true blame lies with Hitler and the Nazi regime.

     Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the visit to Yad Vashem, ''a climax of this historic journey of healing,'' and told the pope: ''You have done more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people...and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.''

     Of course, the Pope also visited historic Christian sites, celebrating Mass in Manger Square near the traditional site of Jesus' birth. Later he descended to the grotto where Mary is believed to have given birth, where he prayed for 15 minutes.

     But what will be remembered are his compassionate words to two wounded peoples.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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