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Pope heads to Nazareth for mass, talks with Israel PM

world Updated: May 14, 2009 11:30 IST

Pope Benedict XVI travels on Thursday to Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus that is now an Arab-Israeli city, where he will celebrate mass and meet Israel's right-wing prime minister.

Pilgrims began pouring into a huge outdoor ampitheatre overlooking Jesus's boyhood town of Nazareth from early morning to hear the Vicar of Christ deliver mass in front of the largest audience of his Holy Land pilgrimage.

Several hours before the mass, the 40,000-seat arena was nearly full on Mt Precipice, revered by many Christians as the spot where Jesus vanished as a crowd angered by his teachings tried to shove him off a cliff. "This is like a dream to see our pope," said Moses Denorio, a Filipino who has been living in Tel Aviv for the past 25 years and had come with three busloads of compatriots.

"It is so special to see him," he said. "It is a blessing for us and a blessing for Nazareth... We're praying for peace in Israel and for the Palestinians. We pray and we don't lose hope. There is always hope."

Following the mass, the pontiff will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Franciscan convent adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation. The pope's meeting with the hawkish premier comes one day after Benedict's visit to the Israeli occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he held talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, called for a sovereign Palestinian homeland, lamented Israel's "tragic" wall that towers over part of the city and called for an end of the Gaza blockade.

While in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city where 30 percent of the 66,300 population is Christian, the pope is expected to reiterate his call for Christians to remain in the Holy Land, where they form a tiny and dwindling minority.

The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics delivered a similar message during mass in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, urging Christians "to consolidate your presence and to offer new possibilities to those tempted to leave." An estimated 130,000 of Israel's 7.4 million residents are Christian, while in the Palestinian territories the ratio is 50,000 of a total population of 3.8 million.

In the basilica Benedict will pray at the Grotto of the Annunciation, which Christians believe marks the spot where the Archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would conceive the son of God.

The pontiff will hold a service in the upper level of the basilica, which was built in 1969 on the site of earlier Crusader and Byzantine churches and is topped by a 55-metre-high (182-foot) dome, whose shape is based on the Madonna lily, symbol of the Virgin Mary.

He is expected to get a mixed welcome from the city's Muslim community amid protests from a small but vocal group still simmering after the pope in 2006 quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

"We do not forgive the pope his insults against Islam, even if he apologises," says Bilal Abu Nashin, a member of the radical Ansar Allah group, which plastered posters protesting the visit.

The group also objects to the pope's meeting with Netanyahu on the eve of the Naqba -- catastrophe -- as Palestinians call the creation of the state of Israel, which led to 700,000 Palestinians being driven out or fleeing their homes.
Benedict's five-day visit to Israel and the West Bank also stirred controversy within the Jewish community, coming after months of uproar over the Vatican's decision to lift the excommunication of Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson of Britain.

Within hours of landing in Israel on Monday, Benedict prayed at the Yad Vashem memorial to victims of the Nazi genocide where he said the Holocaust should never be forgotten. But he drew criticism from media and some officials for failing to voice regret over the murder of six million Jews.