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Pope tells Nazareth's Christians, Muslims to repair damage from religious tensions

At a Mass to wrap up his weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Benedict XVI tells the Israeli city's residents to work for peaceful coexistence.

May 15, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday that a Palestinian state backed by Iran would jeopardize Israel's security. He urged the Roman Catholic leader, who favors an independent Palestine, to turn his moral authority against Iran and its threats toward the Jewish state.

The two leaders met in Nazareth for about 15 minutes, sharing views on the Middle East. "In him I think we found an attentive ear," Netanyahu said later.

Benedict thrust himself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land that ends today. In the West Bank on Wednesday, he called for international pressure to establish an independent Palestinian state, an outcome Netanyahu is reluctant to endorse as the goal of peace talks with the West Bank's U.S.-backed Palestinian leaders.

The Vatican's support for a Palestinian state is not new, but Benedict's vigorous advocacy added to a chorus of appeals from Arab and Western leaders, including President Obama, who is to meet with Netanyahu next week.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the meeting in Nazareth "centered on how the peace process can be advanced."

An Israeli official who briefed reporters said Netanyahu told Benedict that "we don't want a terror state backed by Iran to rise alongside us and jeopardize Israel's safety." Hamas, the Islamic group that won the most recent Palestinian elections and controls the Gaza Strip, is an ally of Iran.

Netanyahu told Israel's Channel 1 television that he had asked the pope "as a moral figure to make his voice heard loudly and continuously against the declarations from Iran and their intention to destroy Israel."

The Israeli leader, who did not mention the Palestinians in his televised remarks, said he was pleased with the pope's reply on Iran: "He said he condemns all instances of anti-Semitism and hate against the state of Israel."

Israeli officials said Netanyahu had promised to consider two Vatican requests: long-term visas for 500 priests from Arab countries and resident status in Israel for West Bank Christians with spouses in Israel. Since 2002, most Palestinians in the occupied territories who marry Israeli citizens are not eligible for resident permits in Israel.

The Israeli government curtailed long-term visas for priests residing in Lebanon and Syria after Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah guerrillas. Israeli officials worried that some priests might be vulnerable to pressure to spy for Hezbollah.

The 82-year-old pontiff spent the day in Nazareth, which is predominantly Arab, preaching reconciliation. He celebrated Mass for about 50,000 people, the largest crowd of his pilgrimage, in a stadium on Mt. Precipice, where, according to the Bible, a mob tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Violent clashes erupted a decade ago when Muslims tried to build a mosque next to the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth's main square.

Arab Christians, about one-third of the population, opposed the project and Israeli authorities eventually rejected it. Muslim activists have periodically marched through the city in shows of strength meant to intimidate Christians.

The pope urged the two communities to "reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice, which kills men's souls before it kills their bodies."

The Ynet news agency said Israeli authorities had ordered Nazem abu Salim, a radical Muslim preacher, to stay out of Nazareth until Friday. A banner hung near the basilica by his followers, intimating that the pope was unwelcome, was taken down this week.

Salim Shair, a 45-year-old carpenter who is Catholic, said inter-religious friction had ebbed in recent years but he nonetheless welcomed the pope's homily.

"It was an excellent sermon," he said as he left the Mass. "We all share this city and need to live together."

Abed Anabtawi, a Muslim community leader, said the pope's words were unnecessary.

"There was no need for him to remind us of the past," he said. "We had problems but we overcame them."


Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Nazareth contributed to this report.

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