Pope calls for peace at Mass in Nazareth | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 14.05.2009
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Pope calls for peace at Mass in Nazareth

Speaking in Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI urged an audience of Christians, Jews and Muslims to put aside decades of conflict in the Holy Land and live in peace.

Pope Benedict XVI in Nazareth

Pope Benedict appealed to those gathered to put past tensions aside

"Sadly, Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years, which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities," the pope told tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered for an open-air Mass on Thursday at an amphitheater just outside of the city known as Jesus' hometown.

These tensions were temporarily swept aside, however, as foreign pilgrims and local Arab Christians gathered on the hillside as early as dawn, hours before the biggest religious event of the pontiff's eight-day tour of the Holy Land.

The mass, attended by more than 50,000 people was celebrated in Arabic, English and Latin.

If Wednesday's visit to the West Bank city of Bethlehem was the highlight of Benedict's pilgrimage for the 1.9-percent Christian minority in the Palestinian territories, Thursday's visit to Nazareth was the highlight for Israel's 2.1-percent Christian-Arab minority.

The only hint of the sensitivities were the more than 5,000 police officers, deployed inside the fenced-off area and on surrounding hilltops, to secure the event on the Mount of Precipice, also known locally as the Mount of the Leap.

The hill-top site provides views of the Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor and other sights in Galilee.

It is here in northern Israel, according to the Bible's New Testament, that a crowd angered by his teachings tried to throw Jesus off the cliff.

Pope Benedict XVI waves to worshippers from his Popemobile

The pontiff waves to worshippers from his Popemobile

"I urge people of goodwill in both communities to repair the damage that has been done, and... to work to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence," the pope said. "Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice,"

Large numbers of police were also deployed inside the town itself. Israel, solely responsible for the pope's safety, was not taking any risks, explained police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.

"We know that there have been statements made against the pope, so we are prepared," he said.

Lingering anger from 2006 remarks

Some of Nazareth's Muslim residents had objected to the papal visit, angry over his controversial 2006 remarks during a lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor making statements against the Prophet Muhammad.

Although Christians were once the majority, at least 70 percent of the town's population is now Muslim.

Tensions between its Muslim majority and declining Christian minority reached a peak in 1999, when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who now leads Israel once again following elections earlier this year - approved construction of a mosque near the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary she would give birth to the Son of God.

Christian protests led all the way up to Pope John Paul II. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eventually had the mosque's illegally begun foundations destroyed in 2003.

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