VATICAN CITY, MAR 22, 2000 (VIS) - Shortly after 8 this morning Pope John Paul travelled by helicopter from Jerusalem to Al-Maghtas in the Jordan Valley near Jericho for a private visit to the nearby Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to John the Baptist. The monastery was built on the remains of a fortress constructed by Emperor Justinian to protect pilgrims. Near the monastery there is a site commemorating the baptism of Jesus.

"For many thousands of years," said the Pope in brief remarks, "this area around Jericho has been a human habitat. ... But its memory becomes still richer when we turn to Holy Scripture, which shows Jericho as a place which bears the footprints not only of man but of God Himself. In my
mind I see Jesus coming to the waters of the River Jordan not far from here to be baptized by John the Baptist, I see Jesus passing on his way to the Holy City where He would die and rise again; I see Him opening the eyes of the blind man as he passes."

After this visit the Pope went by helicopter to Bethlehem, which is in the Autonomous Territories of the Palestinian National Authorities, where he was greeted by its chairman, Yasser Arafat.
Among the religious authorities were Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah and Fr. Giovanni Battistelli, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land.

Bethlehem, ten kilometers south of Jerusalem, is a town of 35,000 inhabitants. In Hebrew its name, "Bet Lehem" means "House of Bread"; its name in Arabic, "Beit Lahm" means "House of Meat." In 1995, with the Oslo Accords, Bethlehem became part of the Palestinian Autonomous Territories.

The Holy Father, following a welcome speech by Yasser Arafat, addressed those gathered to greet him, recalling that "the message of Bethlehem is the Good News of reconciliation among men, of peace at every level of relations between individuals and nations."

Expressing "all my happiness at being here today," the Pope asked: "How can I fail to pray that the divine gift of peace will become more and more a reality for all who live in this land, uniquely marked by God's interventions? Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all the peoples of the region! 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."

John Paul II continued: "The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland, and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquillity with the other peoples of this area. In the international forum, my predecessors and I have repeatedly proclaimed that there would be no end to the sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all the peoples involved, on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations."

"Only with a just and lasting peace B not imposed but secured through negotiation B will legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled," the Pope emphasized. "Only then will the Holy Land see the possibility of a bright new future, no longer dissipated by rivalry and conflict, but firmly based on
understanding and cooperation for the good of all."

"I am fully aware of the great challenges facing the Palestinian Authority and People in every field of economic and cultural development," the Holy Father said. "In a particular way my prayers are with those Palestinians - Muslim and Christian - who are still without a home of their own, their proper place in society and the possibility of a normal working life. My hope is that my visit today to the Deheisheh Refugee Camp will serve to remind the international community that decisive action is needed to improve the situation of the Palestinian people."

"The promise of peace made at Bethlehem," he closed, "will become a reality for the world only when the dignity and rights of all human beings made in the image of God are acknowledged and respected."