Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass for about 40,000 parishioners Thursday at the Mount of the Transfiguration, outside the city of Nazareth.
Nearing the end of his eight-day tour of the Middle East, the pope also attended a reception given by the mayor of Nazareth — the city described in the Bible as the boyhood home of Jesus — and was to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Greeted by a jubilant crowd waving Vatican flags, the pope smiled broadly and waved as he entered the amphitheater Thursday. Many pushed closed to snap a picture of Benedict as he passed by in the so-called pope mobile — a modified truck he rides in the back of that is covered by bulletproof glass. Benedict largely shied from politics a day after calling for reconciliation in the Holy Land and focused on the importance of the family, citing the examples set by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Watch CNN’s Ben Wedeman describe the Church of Annunciation » But a local controversy caught the Vatican’s attention and was included in the pontiff’s homily. “Sadly, as the world knows, Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities,” Benedict said. Tempers have flared during the past decade over the planned construction of a mosque near the Church of Annunciation, which stands at the site where Catholics believe the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus.
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“I urge 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,” the pope said. After Mass, Benedict was scheduled to tour the historic church. The pontiff also was to meet with local religious leaders. Benedict’s meeting with Netanyahu will come a day after he urged Israelis and Palestinians to put aside their “grievances and divisions” and work toward reconciliation in the Middle East, during a speech in the West Bank. “Just and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East can only be achieved through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, in which the rights and dignity of all are acknowledged and upheld,” the pontiff said in a speech attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. “Mr. President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders,” Benedict said. “Even if at present that goal seems far from being realized, I urge you and all your people to keep alive the flame of hope, hope that a way can be found of meeting the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for peace and stability.”
Later on Thursday, Benedict will attend a meeting of about 2,000 Catholic leaders in Galilee, the province where Jesus conducted a great deal of his ministry. Watch CNN’s John Allen describe what it’s like to follow the pope » The pope’s Middle East tour was marred when his spokesman issued an unsolicited denial that Benedict XVI had ever been a member of the Hitler Youth, only to have to retract that denial within a couple of hours.