Pope Praises End of Bethehem Siege

Pope John Paul II, describing his great relief Sunday at the end of the 39-day siege at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, urged mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians to help build a future safeguarding their rights.

It was his first public comment about Friday's end to the impasse, which began April 2 after Palestinian militants took refuge in the 4th-century church to avoid Israeli troops. Worshippers returned on Sunday to pray in the church, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

"We all learned with great relief that the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was given back to God and to the faithful," John Paul said in an appearance from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square.

"From my heart I thank all those who contributed to restoring to the holy place its true religious identity," John Paul said. "A special mention goes to the communities of Franciscans, Greek and Armenian Orthodox who, with notable sacrifice, remained faithful to the sanctuary."

Throughout the siege, clerics remained inside the basilica complex, saying it was their duty to keep it safe.

"To the population of Bethlehem and surrounding areas, I give my strongest encouragement to go on with faith and hope in God," the pontiff added.

"Bethlehem's universal message is love, justice, reconciliation and peace," the ailing, 81-year-old John Paul said, sounding tired and often out of breath as he spoke to pilgrims and tourists in the square. "And it is on these bases that one can construct a future respectful of the rights of the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, in mutual trust."

He noted that the French cardinal he had dispatched to the Holy Land to try to end the standoff, Roger Etchegaray, was in Bethlehem "as my special envoy" to relay his sentiments over the end of the standoff. The cardinal held one of the religious services there Sunday.

As the pope spoke, a peace march in Umbria, a central Italian region, was drawing thousands of participants, from politicians to environmentalists to Scouts, who were walking the 15 miles from Perugia to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis.