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Nazareth, Israel — Pope Benedict XVI spent the last full day of his week-long pilgrimage on Wednesday (May 14) urging reconciliation in the town where Jesus spent his youth but which is now beset by uneasy relations between Christians and Muslims.
At a festive Mass in this hilly city in northern Israel, the pope focused on the sometimes troubled relationship between local Christians and Muslims. About two-thirds of the city’s 65,000 residents are Arab Muslims, while the rest are Christian.
Animosity between the two groups, which is always simmering under the surface, peaked almost a decade ago when the Vatican thwarted plans to build a mosque right next to the Church of the Annunciation, where tradition holds the Virgin Mary was told she would give birth to Jesus.
As he has done many times during his pilgrimage, Benedict drew modern lessons from biblical events during the Mass atop the Mount of Precipice, the site where a throng of angry people threatened to throw Jesus down a cliff.
“This Mount of Precipice reminds us, as it has generations of pilgrims, that our Lord’s message was at times a source of contradiction and conflict with his hearers,” the pope told the 40,000 pilgrims arrayed before him.
“Sadly, as the world knows, Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities.”
Benedict urged “people of good will” in both communities “to repair the damage that has been done, and in fidelity to our common belief in one God, the father of the human family, to work to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence. Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice, which kills men’s souls before it kills their bodies.”
Given the town’s importance in the life of Mary, the pope also emphasized the importance of the family and reaffirmed the “sacredness” of marriage between “a man and a woman.”
“Nazareth reminds us of our need to acknowledge and respect the God-given dignity and proper role of women, as well as their particular charms and talents,” the pope said.
Like Wednesday’s papal Mass in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, the mood in Nazareth was upbeat and energized. Local Catholics mingled with pilgrims from dozens of countries, including Israel-based diplomats, foreign workers, humanitarian aid workers and African refugees who have found safe haven in Israel. The crowds danced in the aisles and broke into song as others played guitars, flutes and drums.
Following the Mass, the pope held an interfaith meeting at the Shrine of the Annunciation and held a private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Vatican’s top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the talks “centered on how the peace process can be advanced” but provided few details.
According to Netanyahu, the pope “said that he condemns all instances of anti-Semitism and hate against the state of Israel — against humanity as a whole — but in this case against Israel.”
During the week-long pilgrimage, the pope has twice called for the creation of a “sovereign Palestinian homeland,” an idea that Netanyahu is cool to because he believes Palestinians, divided between Fatah and Hamas loyalists, are not yet ready to make peace with Israel.
Netanyahu said he asked Benedict to act against Iranian threats to destroy the Jewish state.
“I asked him, as a moral figure, to make his voice heard loud and continuously against the declarations coming from Iran of their intention to destroy Israel. I told him it cannot be that at the beginning of the 21st century there is a state which says it is going to destroy the Jewish state, there is no aggressive voice being heard condemning this,” Netanyahu said.
Benedict is scheduled to return to Rome on Friday, following a stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which Christians
revere as Jesus’ tomb.
By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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