Pope set to complete Middle East tour

By Allyn Fisher-Ilan

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will complete a Middle East pilgrimage Friday with prayers at one of the holiest sites for Christians, a day after holding mass for tens of thousands in the Galilee town of Nazareth.

Before ending his eight-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pontiff was due to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old walled city of Jerusalem, built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

In Nazareth, which the Bible says was the boyhood home of Jesus, Benedict sang a song of peace Thursday at an inter-faith meeting with Muslims and Jews and discussed the elusive efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The leaders talked about a mutual "desire to advance diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican and understanding between Judaism and Christianity," Netanyahu's office said in a statement.

It said the talks were held in a "good atmosphere," a tone that contrasted with the controversy the German-born pope had aroused over a speech Monday at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Some Israelis had criticised the pope's remarks as having been too abstract and lacking in empathy.

Relations between the church and Israel have also been hurt by recent Vatican support for sainthood for the controversial World War Two Pope Pius and Benedict's decision to lift the excommunication of a British bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust.

Thursday more than 50,000 people attended an outdoor mass -- celebrated in Arabic, English and Latin -- in an area near the Galilee town of Nazareth known as Mount Precipice, where the Bible says a mob tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff.

Nazareth is located in the heartland of Israel's minority Arab community, who number about 1.5 million, about 10 percent of whom are Christian. Most Israeli Arab citizens are descended from Palestinians who remained while hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out in fighting over Israel's creation in 1948.

There, Benedict spoke of the "sacredness of the family," turning to an older theme after focussing his remarks during most of his visit on prodding the sides to work for peace.

He said that "God's plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God's gift of new life."

The Catholic Church is against divorce and homosexual marriage and has ascribed many of society's ills to the breakdown of the traditional family.

Article Published: 14/05/2009