Pope Benedict becomes first 'new citizen of Bethlehem'

 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI accepted a Bethlehem passport from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on Saturday. His Holiness becomes the first new citizen of Bethlehem following the launch of 'Open Bethlehem', an international campaign to save the city. Bethlehem faces a state of emergency following the completion of an eight metre high cement wall at the entrance to the city that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem and other Palestinian towns. With the Israeli wall and other closures, including militarised fences and illegal Jewish settlements, Bethlehem has been reduced to its urban core: a modern-day ghetto town. In issuing a passport, Bethlehem is granting citizenship to those who "uphold the values of a just and open society (and) remain a true friend of Bethlehem, through its imprisonment", according to the passport's citation. Leila Sansour- the chief executive of Open Bethlehem said: "We are appealing to the Pope as well as all citizens of the world to help us uphold the message that was born in our city. Bethlehem- a name that resonates with millions of people around the world with a message of peace and hope for mankind is today an open-air prison. Over 400 entire Christian families have emigrated from the city in the last four years. We cannot allow the depopulation of Bethlehem and the erosion of a 2000 year-old heritage that anchors Christianity in the Middle East." The Palestinian delegation included the Palestinian Minister of Tourism Ziad Al Bandak, a native of Bethlehem, who stressed that new developments on the ground are damaging to an already fragile tourist industry as the critical Christmas season approaches. For more information see: www.openbethlehem.org

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