NAZARETH, Israel, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict, visiting the town of Jesus’s boyhood, on Thursday addressed the largest crowd of his trip and called for a defence of traditional heterosexual marriage and family values.
On the penultimate day of his Mideast journey, Benedict took his pilgrimage to Nazareth, the town where Jesus, Mary and Joseph — known in Christianity as the Holy Family — lived until Jesus began is public ministry.
The religious theme of the day’s events came after three days during which the pope touched on pressing political issues such as a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s security barrier and the situation in Gaza.
The German-born pontiff, who has been criticised by rabbis and politicians in Israel over a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, was also to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Nazareth.
The pope used the visit to Israel’s Galilee region, the heartland of the country’s minority Arab population, to express his concerns about what the Catholic Church sees as the deterioration of the family around the world.
More than 40,000 people attended the outdoor mass — celebrated in Arabic, English and Latin — in the area of Nazareth known as Mount Precipice, where the bible says a mob tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff.
There, Benedict spoke of “the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life”. He added, “How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!”
The Catholic Church is against divorce and homosexual marriage and has ascribed many of society’s ills to the breakdown of the family.
Speaking to the crowd from a large white altar platform, the pope said the family must return to a prominent place as “the first building block of a well-ordered and welcoming society”.
The area around Nazareth is about 35 percent Christian, one of the highest percentages in Israel. Some 1.5 million Israelis, about a fifth of the population, are Arabs, 10 percent of whom are Christian.
The pope was due later to visit the Church of the Annunciation, the site where faithful believe the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would give birth to Jesus, who Christians believe is the Son of God.
Against the backdrop of Israel’s barrier in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, which it calls a security necessity and Palestinians condemn as a land grab, the pope repeated a call for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has so far declined to endorse that goal.
Benedict completes his trip, which started a week ago in Jordan, 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.