NAZARETH, Israel | Pope Benedict XVI climaxed his visit to the Holy Land by holding hands and singing with Muslims and Jews in the hometown of Jesus on Thursday to underline a poignant appeal for all faiths to reject hatred and live in peace.
The 82-year-old pontiff made the spontaneous gesture, getting to his feet during a meeting at the Basilica of the Annunciation church in Nazareth as a rabbi sang “Shalom, Salam, Lord Grant Us Peace.”
The interfaith meeting of Christians, Jews and Muslims came on the pontiff’s last full day of his delicate tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The German pope’s response to the song, which was specially composed for his visit by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, contrasted with what some Israelis felt was his stiff, rather cold attitude during a visit he made Monday to Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial.
In his greetings to the religious leaders in Nazareth, Benedict recalled the ethnic and religious diversity of the surrounding, fertile northern Israeli region of Galilee, where Jesus spent much of his youth.
“Our different religious traditions have a powerful potential to promote a culture of peace, especially through teaching and preaching the deeper spiritual values of our common humanity,” the pope said.
“By molding the hearts of the young, we mold the future of humanity itself. Christians readily join Jews, Muslims, Druze and people of other religions in wishing to safeguard children from fanaticism and violence while preparing them to be builders of a better world.”
At an evening vespers service, Benedict again urged his flock of beleaguered Christians of the Middle East to resist the temptation to leave the troubled area and work instead as “effective instruments of God’s peace, helping to build genuine reconciliation between the different people who recognize Abraham as their father in faith.”
Also on Thursday the pope met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Franciscan convent next to the basilica. Vatican officials said the 15-minute talk “centered on how the peace process [with the Palestinians] can be advanced,” but Mr. Netanyahu said he focused on Iran.
“I asked him, as a moral figure, to make his voice heard loud and continuously against the declarations coming from Iran of their intention to destroy Israel,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Netanyahu as saying.
Benedict has repeatedly called for a Palestinian state during his visit and denounced an Israeli wall that cuts through populated areas of the West Bank in what Palestinians see as a disguised land grab.
Mr. Netanyahu, who visits Washington next week for a summit with President Obama, rejects the two-state solution.
In a sign of the continuing issues to be resolved between the Jewish state and the Vatican, an Israeli official said a Holy See request for multiple-entry visas for 500 priests from Arab countries had been rejected.
Benedict began his day by celebrating Mass for tens of thousands of Christians, calling for people of all faiths in the Holy Land to “reject the power of hatred and prejudice.”
“Sadly, as the world knows, Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities,” Benedict said in his homily.
The pope appeared to be referring to recent tensions in Nazareth about plans to build a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation. The plans were scrapped in 2002 after intervention by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and others.
Nearly half of Nazareth’s 70,000 residents are Christian Arabs, predominantly Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox.
Some 40,000 people including pilgrims from across Europe attended the open-air Mass in a special amphitheater built for the event at Mount Precipice, where the Bible says an angry mob tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff.
It was the largest turnout of the four masses Benedict has celebrated during his visit that ends Friday, when he returns to Rome.