Pope's Political Views Eclipse Christian Agenda

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JERUSALEM - Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to Bethlehem on Wednesday. 
    
It is the pontiff's only stop in the West Bank during his five-day visit to Israel. 

At a gathering in Bethlehem's Manger Square, the pope made his most explicit call yet for a Palestinian state.
 
"The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders," Pope Benedict XVI said.

PR Boost For Abbas
 
The Pope's call for statehood provides a strong public relations boost for Abbas at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to convince Washington and the world that a state now would be a disaster for Israel and the Palestinians.
 
In his greeting to the pope, Abbas talked of Palestinian suffering in the 61 years since Al Naqba -- in Arabic, "the catastrophe" -- which is how Palestinians refer to the birth of Israel as a modern nation.

Christians Still Fleeing The Middle East
 
The pope's political statements have overshadowed another top item on his agenda: the plight of thousands of Christians who remain in the Middle East. Thousands more Christians have fled the region in recent years. 

Publicly, many blame Israel's occupation of the West Bank. But Justis Weiner, who has studied the issue for a dozen years, says that is nonsense.
 
He says Palestinian Muslims attack Christians through property crime, sexual harrassment, arrest, torture and even murder.
 
"The Israeli occupation existed decades before this upsurge in attacks on Christians," Weiner said. "The attacks on Christians are commonplace across the entire Middle East, Asia, and North Africa.  From Pakistan or Afghanistan in Asia all the way across our region and continuing to, say, Morocco or Mauritania."
 
* This story originally aired May 13, 2009

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