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Plans for the pope's visit hit a wall in Bethlehem

Palestinians are building a stage to receive the pope beside Israel's separation barrier, but the Vatican says he will now speak at a nearby school.

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The local welcome committee for the pope, however, has decided to march on with their plans, setting the stage for a less-than-comfortable atmosphere on the eve of the visit. On Wednesday, workers were still busy preparing the site as if nothing had changed.

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"As the official committee to welcome the pope, we have decided that we will insist on finishing this area and welcoming the pope here," says Oudeh. To his left, the wall blocks the view of the rolling landscape and of Rachel's Tomb of biblical fame. Nearby, ramshackle buildings overflow with people and laundry lines. A UN study released Wednesday says that only 13 percent of Bethlehem land is available for Palestinian use, much of it fragmented. Moreover, 66 percent of the land is designated as Area C, where Israel retains control over building and planning, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found.

The residents, who number about 4,000, are disappointed. "Last night, we had a meeting in the camp, and when we told the residents that the pope won't speak here, they were very angry," Oudeh says.

The frustration, local Palestinians say, is not just with Israel or the Vatican, but what they describe as the PA's acquiescence.

"If the PA agrees to this, there will be real disgust," says Abdelfattah Abusrour, who runs the Alrowwad Cultural Theatre and Training Center here. "But at the end of the day, the pope will pass by here and the wall will be visible in every way. Even if he doesn't sit in front of it, they can't hide it."

The spokesman for the Vatican in Israel says there has been no change in venue, and that officials decided several weeks ago that the school was the most appropriate place for the pope's address.

"The holy father will pass by the wall on his way in and out of Bethlehem, and regardless of where he will sit, the misery of the Palestinians will be known," says Wadie Abu Nassar. "It is a very sensitive matter there, but this issue was agreed on since the beginning. There are several factors no one can hide. First, that there is a wall. Second, the Palestinian refugees live in terrible conditions, and third, there's an occupation."

A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said that the papal visit should focus on bringing the religions together, not highlighting political issues.

"We believe that the choices the Vatican is making are the right ones," says Andy David, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "This visit is intended to bring the three religions together to create an atmosphere of cooperation and send a message of peace. Trying to use the visit to emphasize disputes, we think, is not the right way to treat the pope's visit."

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