In Holy Land, Catholics remember Pope John Paul II
By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Masses in churches across the Holy Land were dedicated to the soul of Pope John Paul II after the announcement of his death.

Black ribbons hung from portraits of the 84-year-old pontiff as the faithful came to pray at numerous churches.

"We have lost a saint," said Nadia Abu Etta, 40, with tears streaming down her cheeks as she left Mass at St. Catherine's Church at the Church of the Nativity complex. "His works were special. I feel lonely now."

She said she awoke in the morning and prayed to "St. John Paul II" to watch over her children and her family.

"I know he is with Jesus now," she said. "And I asked him also to please be with us."

A Bethlehem parish priest, Father Amjad Sabbara, reminded his congregation of the pope's love for the Holy Land and of the work that he did to bring pilgrims back there. He urged them to remember the pope's call to create bridges instead of walls between people.

The pope "served God and served man" with his deeds and showed the world the "value of dignity and human rights and freedom," he said.

"He was a man you couldn't forget once you met him," said Father Sabbara, who met the pope three times, including the pope's visit to Bethlehem. "You felt he entered you, into your life, into your heart."

Christians in Bethlehem recalled the visit of the pope to their city in 2000. Daniella Tanas, 9, said she remembered the chants they called out, welcoming the pope.

"We are so sad because of the death of the pope, but we know that we must all die, that is part of life," said her father, George Tanas. "He (was) for peace in the Middle East and among the three religions. He was a symbol for peace and reconciliation."

Meanwhile, Israel Radio ran special interviews with Holocaust survivor Edith Tzirer, who was rescued after the war by the pope, then a young priest who carried the then-13-year-old girl some 25 miles to safety. The two renewed contact decades later and met during the pope's 2000 visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

On April 3 candlelit vigils took place in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Residents of Dehiyshe refugee camp, which borders Bethlehem and which the pope visited in his 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, paid homage to the pontiff by walking from the refugee camp to the Church of the Nativity, said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's representative to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"They said that before Pope John Paul II came to them, and now they are going to him," Archbishop Sambi said. "And there is not one Christian living in Dehiyshe."

In Jerusalem some 2,000 local Catholics and pilgrims took part in a candlelit procession from St. Savior Church in Jerusalem's Old City to the Church of Gethsemane, where the pope prayed during his visit. Along the way, the group sang hymns and said the rosary, but most of the time participants walked silently, said Shouki Meo, 31, a local Catholic.

"There was a need to pray for the pope's soul in heaven. Maybe his soul will also pray for us," Meo said. "Maybe the pope is dead and he can't see, but we wanted to join all the others in our expression of love for him and thanks for what he did, especially with his visit to the Holy Land for us as Christians together with the Muslims and Jews."

Yosef Binnenstock, a childhood friend of the pope who said he shared the same school bench with him beginning in preschool, was also interviewed by Israel Radio and recalled how he would copy from the pope's homework and exams.

"But don't tell anyone," he said on the radio. It was only thanks to the pope, whom he called by his nickname "Karolik," that he was able to finish school, he said.

"The man who is no longer with us had a golden heart, and he loved Jews with all his heart. He said we were the older brothers of Catholicism," said Binnenstock. Over the years the two remained in touch and exchanged letters and holiday cards, he said. "He was a speaker of truth and did fantastic things."

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