NAZARETH, Israel (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will visit Nazareth on Thursday, the town of Jesus’ boyhood in the heartland of Israel’s minority Arab population.
On the fourth day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the pope was due to celebrate an open-air mass, expected to see the biggest turnout of the tour, at a site where the Bible says an angry mob assaulted Jesus.
The pontiff was also to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In speeches since arriving in Jordan on Friday, he has called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, as backed by Western and Arab states.
Netanyahu has so far declined to endorse that goal.
The Vatican “supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with your neighbors,” the pope said on Wednesday in Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth.
He also urged both sides to break the stalemate in peace efforts so that a barrier Israel has built in and around the West Bank territory it seized and occupied after the 1967 war could soon be torn down.
“I have seen ... overshadowing much of Bethlehem, the wall that intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families,” the pope said.
“Although walls can be easily built, we all know that they do not last forever. They can be taken down,” he added.
Benedict is the first pope to see the wall Israel has said it erected to prevent Palestinian bombings in its neighboring towns and cities. He acknowledged Israel’s security concerns, urging people not to “resort to acts of violence or terrorism.”
“On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome,” the pope said.
In Nazareth, one of the largest towns where Israeli Arab citizens live, the pope will say mass at Mount Precipice, where a mob tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff, according to the bible.
A separate mass will be held in a church built at the site where Jesus’ impending birth was announced to his mother, Mary.
Some 1.5 million Israelis, about a fifth of the population, are Arabs, ten percent of whom are Christian.
Most Israeli Arab citizens are descended from Palestinian Arabs who remained while hundreds of thousands of others fled or were driven out during fighting over Israel’s founding in 1948.
The German-born pope’s visit to Israel aroused controversy among Jews who felt that his speech at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial to six million Jews murdered by the Nazis was too abstract and lacked empathy.
Relations between the church and Israel have been damaged this year by Vatican support for sainthood for the controversial World War Two Pope Pius and for Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunication of a British bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
He completes his pilgrimage in Jerusalem on Friday with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and the tomb where he was buried.
Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Jon Hemming