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Reject hatred, live in peace, Pope says at Nazareth mass

world Updated: May 14, 2009 18:36 IST

Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday urged faiths sharing the Holy Land to reject hatred and live in peace as he celebrated the largest mass of his pilgrimage outside Nazareth, hometown of Jesus.

"Sadly... Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities," Benedict told tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered at an open-air amphitheatre.

"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," he said.

"Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice," the pope said on Mt Precipice, where Christians believe Jesus vanished as a crowd angered by his teachings tried to shove him off a cliff.

The 82-year-old pontiff celebrated mass in front of some 40,000 faithful, the largest one of his eight-day Holy Land pilgrimage that ends on Friday.

"This is like a dream to see our pope," said Moses Denorio, a Filipino who has been living in Israel 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."

The pontiff is due to meet later in the day with Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Franciscan convent adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Ahead of the encounter, an Israeli official said that the Jewish state had refused a Vatican request to issue multi-entry visas to some 500 priests from Arab countries, in what could become another bone of discord during the pontiff's trip.

The German-born pope sparked criticism in the Jewish state shortly after arriving on Monday, with many saying that during his visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem he did not show enough empathy and had failed to apologise for the Nazi genocide.

On Wednesday, he called for a sovereign Palestinian homeland and lamented Israel's "tragic" wall as he visited the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank where he held talks with president Mahmud Abbas.

The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics during mass in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, also urged Christians "to consolidate your presence and to offer new possibilities to those tempted to leave."

Encouraging the Holy Land's dwindling Christian community to stay has been one of the main aims of the pontiff's trip to the land revered by the world's three main monotheistic faiths.

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.

His visit has received a mixed welcome from the Muslim community in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city where 30 percent of the 66,300 population is Christian.

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" has protested his visit to the city.

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.