Netanyahu appeals to pope on Ahmadinejad

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Pope Benedict XVI to speak out against the anti-Israel rhetoric from Iran’s president.

The Israeli leader met privately with the pope on Thursday for about 15 minutes in Nazareth. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the talks "centered on how the peace process can be advanced."

Speaking to the Israel media afterward, Netanyahu said he had appealed to the pontiff to speak out against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and questioned whether the Holocaust took place.

"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," Netanyahu said. "I told him it cannot be that at the beginning of the 21st century there is a state which says it is going to destroy the Jewish state, there is no aggressive voice being heard condemning this."

Netanyahu said that in response, the pope said that "he condemns all instances of anti-Semitism and hate against the State of Israel — against humanity as a whole — but in this case against Israel."

The meeting came a day after the pope made an emotional appeal in the West Bank for the establishment of an independent Palestinian homeland — a concept Netanyahu has not yet publicly endorsed.

Earlier in the day, the pope celebrated Mass in Nazareth, calling for a rejection of hatred and prejudice. After arriving in the bullet-proof Popemobile, Benedict urged the crowd of about 40,000 gathered at Mount Precipice to "reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice, which kills men’s souls before it kills their bodies." The site is where an angry mob is said to have tried to push Jesus off the cliff.

Nazareth, in northern Israel’s Galilee, is one of Israel’s largest Arab cities. About one-third of its 65,000 residents are Christian.

Following Thursday morning’s Mass, the pontiff visited the Basilica of the Annunciation to meet with local religious leaders.

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