December 18, JERUSALEM (AP) - The highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land said Wednesday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should step down if he is unable to make peace with Israel, and urged worshippers blocked from traveling on Christmas Eve to pray at Israeli army checkpoints.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said he believes the principal responsibility for peace rests with Israel. But he took a pointed swipe at the Palestinian Authority for failing to end 26 months of bloodshed that has claimed nearly 2,700 lives, mostly Palestinians.

``If the present leaders do not succeed in making peace, there is only one solution: open the way to other leaders,'' Sabbah said in an annual Christmas message. ``If Arafat is unable to make peace, of course, let him also give a place to another.''

Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1987 and the first Palestinian to hold the title, normally reserves his sharpest criticism for Israel. During last year's message, the Nazareth-born prelate denounced Israel's ``continuous injustice in this Holy Land, the occupation of the land, the humiliation of the people.''

This year, however, his remarks reflect a growing weariness with Arafat, who for decades has symbolized the Palestinian quest for statehood.

Although polls show Arafat, 73, remains the single most popular Palestinian leader, his waning mystique has taken a blow in recent weeks as senior Palestinians have questioned the uprising and the Palestinian leadership.

The most high-profile criticism has came from Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, who in recent public statements has called the armed confrontation with Israel a mistake.

Advisers to Arafat were not available for comment on Sabbah's remarks Wednesday.

Sabbah did not mention Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by name, and a Sharon aide said he had no comment on the patriarch's message.

Sabbah also criticized Israel's decision to prevent Arafat from attending Midnight Mass in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and said if Israel does not ease travel bans in the West Bank, worshippers should pray at army checkpoints. ``From places of humiliation, hatred and death, as they are now, transform them into places of worship. Call for prayer gatherings there,'' he said.

Israel says its curfews and closures of Palestinian cities and towns are necessary to prevent Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. Palestinians say the harsh measures amount to collective punishment.

Sabbah again called for an end to Israel's military occupation and chastised the Jewish state for its clampdown on the Palestinian territories. He said Israelis need to consider why Palestinians were launching attacks against them.

In August, Sabbah led a delegation of Christian clerics in a meeting with the spiritual leader of the militant Hamas group, in a bid to stop suicide bombings. It was the second time Sabbah met with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, but the Hamas leader refused to give any guarantees as long as what he called Israel's punitive policies against Palestinians continued.

In a poll released Wednesday, most Palestinians surveyed said they believe suicide bombings against Israel were justified, and only a minority supported ending the violent uprising.

Some 63 percent said suicide bombings should continue, and just 17 percent opposed the uprising, which has claimed the lives of 1,997 people on the Palestinian side and 685 on the Israeli side. Eighty percent of respondents said the uprising should continue.

The survey also reflected widespread disillusionment among Palestinians with their own leadership. An overwhelming majority - 83 percent - believe there is corruption in the Palestinian Authority, and 30 percent said they do not trust any of their leaders.

Arafat was chosen as the most trusted leader by 25 percent, a slight decline in popularity from September, when 28 percent of Palestinians surveyed placed him at the top of the list. Yassin came in second with 11.5 percent, and third was Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader jailed in Israel, with 5 percent.

Some 56 percent of respondents said they expect Arafat to be re-elected as president if democratic elections are held, a slight drop of 4 percent from September.

The survey of 1,200 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was done by the JMCC polling firm between Dec. 8 and 12 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

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