By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 15, 2009
NAZARETH, Israel, May 14 -- A newly erected concrete spire sliced high into the air over an altar spread beneath, turning a dusty amphitheater here in northern Israel into a church for tens of thousands.
National flags and ecumenical banners stood out in the breeze, and quavering Arabic melodies alternated with the sounds of English and Latin.
Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the boyhood home of Jesus on Thursday to celebrate the final Mass of his eight-day trip to the Middle East. The ceremony served as a boisterous send-off for the 82-year-old pontiff, who returns to Rome on Friday.
"Viva al baba!" the crowd shouted at the end of the Mass, lending an Arabic touch to a standard Italian papal cheer, "Viva il papa!"
"Magnificent. Amazing," Nazareth resident Samia Barham said of the Mass as she stood in a crowd of what news media estimated at 50,000.
The gathering was dominated by local Christians, most of them Israeli Arabs, but there were also delegations of pilgrims from Europe and Africa, groups of nuns and priests, and a polyglot mix of others: a detachment of Polish U.N. soldiers; a group called the Hebrew-Speaking Catholics of Israel, waving Israeli flags; and knots of men from the West Bank who had been granted Israeli permission to travel here.
Although Nazareth is central to Christian belief as the home town of Mary and the place where Jesus began his ministry, it is not accustomed to the spotlight, which is usually drawn to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But since the Vatican announced plans to hold the main Mass of Benedict's trip here, the city has rushed to show it can hold its own.
Large banners with the pope's picture adorned hillsides, and fresh flowers beamed from roadway medians leading to places of pilgrimage such as the Basilica of the Annunciation, the massive building that tradition says marks the spot where an angel told Mary she would give birth to the son of God.
More than religious pride was at stake: Israeli Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel's population, and as residents of the largest Israeli Arab city, Nazarenes appeared eager for the attention.
"It's historic for us -- it may be half of all the Christians in Israel in one place," said Yahab Kobti, 37, a local contractor who wore his Catholic Scouts uniform to the ceremony.
The number was not quite that large: There are about 130,000 Christians in Israel, or 150,000 if the disputed neighborhoods of Arab East Jerusalem are included.
But it was still an impressive show for a city that earned a special mention in Benedict's homily as the home of the family Christians revere as a model. Benedict also used the setting -- near Mount Precipice, where the Bible says a mob tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff -- to reiterate the call for interfaith cooperation that has been a refrain of his trip.
Nazareth is predominantly Muslim, although its Christian population is strong and relations between the two faiths are considered good. The elected mayor is Christian, and people on the street are apt to shun questions about their religion: They say it doesn't matter.
Yet there are undercurrents of tension. From the top floor of one apartment building near the basilica hung a black flag and a banner reading "Nicht Willkommen" -- "not welcome" in Benedict's native German -- reflecting the resentment among some Muslims at what they regard as Benedict's insults about the prophet Muhammad. Another banner said of anyone who does not accept Islam, "In the hereafter, he will be one of the losers."
"Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice," Benedict said in his homily.
Muslims and Christians on the streets dismissed the banners as fringe sentiments in a city that prides itself on being a multi-faith center of Arab culture in Israel.
If anything, people said, they wanted to see more of the pope -- and were disappointed that Israeli security insisted he travel through town in a caravan, unseen, rather than in the crowd-friendly Popemobile that his predecessor, John Paul II, used when he visited in 2000.
"He should come every month," said Walid Wahadany, a local builder. "They fixed up the streets."