NAZARETH, Israel – Speaking from the hometown of Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict XVI greeted tens of thousands of adoring followers with a message of reconciliation, urging Christians and Muslims to overcome recent tensions and "reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice."
The pope delivered his message on the fourth day of a Holy Land pilgrimage meant to promote peace and unity in the Middle East. Throughout the trip, however, he has been confronted with the region's most sensitive issues, including the legacy of the Holocaust, the Palestinian plight under Israeli occupation and fragile interfaith ties.
The choice of Nazareth — home to many key sites in Christianity — as the venue for the largest Mass the pope has celebrated during his visit was at least an indirect reflection of these challenges. The city, located in northern Israel's Galilee region, is the country's largest Arab city. Roughly two-thirds of its 65,000 people are Muslims and one-third are Christian. While the two communities tend to get along, they also have come into sporadic conflict.
Earlier this decade, Muslim activists outraged Christians when they built an unauthorized mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus to Mary. Israel later tore down the mosque. Muslim activists also have periodically marched through the city in shows of strength meant to intimidate Christians.
In his homily, Benedict spoke of the tensions that have harmed interfaith relations.
"I urge people of goodwill 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," he said. "Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice, which kills men's souls before it kills their bodies."
The comments touched on some of the key themes the pope has focused on during the trip, which a day earlier took him to the West Bank town of Bethlehem — Jesus' traditional birthplace. From there, Benedict issued a ringing appeal for an independent Palestinian state.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope was "very happy" with the outcome of the trip and that "all the important meetings were very positive."
Lombardi said Benedict's main goal was "peace, peace, peace," adding that he felt the pope had listened to all sides, acting like a "bridge" between the various positions.
Later Thursday, the pope was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who still resists the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Lombardi said the afternoon meeting would be key because "personal contact is always very important."
During a weeklong trip that included a stop in neighboring Jordan, the pope has also tried to draw attention to the dwindling number of Christians in the Middle East.
Members of the region's once large and prosperous Christian communities are increasingly leaving conflict-ridden areas including Iraq and the Palestinian territories to seek better lives in the West.
On Thursday, the archbishop of Galilee for the Greek Melkite Church, Elias Chacour, welcomed the pope with a plea for his prayers and "moral and spiritual support" to stem the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.
He said the flight of Christians "fills me with pain" and that the future is not encouraging.
In Nazareth, where tradition holds that Jesus grew up, an estimated 50,000 people greeted the pope, many of them swaying back and forth to Arabic music played over loudspeakers, clapping in unison and waving yellow and white Vatican flags.
As the music subsided, the crowd began the familiar chants in Italian of "Benedetto" and "Viva il Papa."
The pope passed through the crowd in his white popemobile, led by a procession of priests and bishops in flowing white robes. The leader of the procession swung an incense burner and behind him another priest held an ornate silver cross high above his head.
The pope carried a larger gold cross and a golden cloak over his traditional white robe as he walked on stage and waved to the crowd. Surrounding him were younger priests in yellow and white robes who held their hands raised in prayer, bibles tucked under their arms.
One of the younger priests handed Benedict the incense burner, which he swung back and forth as he walked around a table resplendent with silver candlesticks. A picture of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child sat in front of the table facing the crowd.
A string of armed guards in heavy dark coats stood in front of the stage between the pontiff and the faithful.
Thursday's Mass was celebrated on Mount Precipice, where Christian tradition says a mob tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. Later in the day, the pope was to head to the Basilica of the Annunciation to worship and for talks with local religious leaders. He is to return to the Vatican on Friday.
According to tradition, Jesus traveled through the Galilee with his disciples preaching and performing miracles in the final years of his life.