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BY Jim Cosgrove
CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy—In a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Pope John Paul II expressed satisfaction at the West Bank land-for-security accord that gave new life to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
After signing the breakthrough agreement in Egypt Sept. 5, Arafat traveled to Italy, where he met for more than an hour with the Pope at his summer villa outside Rome to discuss details of the accord. The Vatican said the Pope was pleased at the progress.
“The Holy See, in expressing satisfaction and hope at this advance, encourages both sides to continue the process and emphasizes the importance that peace holds for the two peoples,” said a Vatican statement issued after the encounter.
It was the eighth time Arafat had met with the Pope. The Palestinian leader afterward held talks with Vatican Secretary of StateCardinal Angelo Sodano.
On a separate issue, observers said Arafat's visit indicated that the Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization might be close to an agreement on legal aspects regulating Church activities in Palestiniancontrolled areas.
The Vatican statement expressed satisfaction at progress on these legal questions, which have been explored by a PLO-Vatican commission since 1998. Several important holy places lie in Palestinian territory.
After the meeting with the Pope, Arafat gave the Pope a small model of the Bethlehem grotto, held by tradition as the birthplace of Christ, and expressed his hope that the Pope would visit there in 2000.
“I hope so, I hope so,” the Pope replied.
Vatican officials have said the Pope wants to visit the Holy Land in late March to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation and mark the Great Jubilee 2000 in the place of Christ's birth. Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, and Arafat has made it clear that Palestinians are eager to host the Pope.
Arafat used the occasion of his latest audience with the Holy Father to again invite him to visit the territories controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, especially Bethlehem. It was after Arafat's last vist, in February, that the Holy See officially accepted his invitation to visit the territories.
Vatican sources said that while the Pope's visit to the Holy Land has not been officially decided, prospects appeared to have improved with the latest PLO-Israeli agreement.
The agreement, signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, revives the Wye accords of 1998. It calls for an initial land transfer of 7% of the West Bank and release of Palestinian prisoners and paves the way for talks on an eventual Palestinian state and the question of Jerusalem.
The agreement was to be reviewed by the Israeli Cabinet and Parliament in mid-September.
Speaking informally with reporters, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls returned to the subject of the Pope's plans to visit the Middle East. He emphasized that the official program of dates and places for the Pope's planned visits to the Middle East have yet to be determined.
The first of two trips would probably take place in December, travelling to Ur of the Chaldeans, in Iraq. ZENIT, the Rome-based news agency said various sources have indicated that additional stops may include Mount Sinai, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria. (From combined wire services)