NAZARETH, Israel (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to Pope Benedict XVI to “make his voice heard loud” against Iran’s call for the destruction of the Jewish state. But his focus on Iran did not mask a key difference with the pontiff over whether Palestinians deserve a state of their own.

The two men met a day after the pope made a powerful call for Palestinian statehood, a concept that Netanyahu has refused to endorse. They held 15 minutes of face-to-face talks, which the Vatican said “centered on how the peace process can be advanced.”

But in televised remarks following the talks, Netanyahu did not mention the Palestinian issue, focusing instead 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,” Netanyahu said of his talks with the pope.

“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, and there is no aggressive voice being heard condemning this,” the Israeli leader told Israel TV.

He said Benedict said “he condemns all such things, anti-Semitism, hate,” adding: “I think we found in him an attentive ear.”

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel’s elimination, his exact remarks have been disputed, with some translators saying he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Others say a better translation would be “vanish from the pages of time” – implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.

Since taking office on March 31, Netanyahu has emphasized the Iranian threat in an apparent attempt to put the Palestinian question on the back burner.

Not like others

Unlike previous governments, Netanyahu’s has refused to endorse the two-state formula, potentially putting him on a collision course with President Barack Obama. The two will meet in Washington next week.

The Israeli leader called his meeting with Benedict “very good and important,” noting that the pope heads a church of 1 billion followers, and Israel wants good relations with them. “Secondly, we spoke also about the historic process of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism. and the pope is very interested,” Netanyahu said.

The pope’s ventures into diplomacy reflected what Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called the focus of his Middle East pilgrimage – “peace, peace, peace.” He said the pope could be a “bridge” among the various positions.

The Vatican has been active on the Middle East diplomatic front, seeking to protect Christians in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the region, while supporting a solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute through creation of a Palestinian state and security for Israel.

From Israel’s creation in 1948, the Jewish state and the Vatican had no formal relations until Pope John Paul II forged official ties in 1993, giving the Vatican a larger voice in Mideast diplomacy.

Taking stands

Charging headlong into the touchiest Mideast political issues on his Holy Land pilgrimage, Benedict has criticized Israel’s security barrier, a network of concrete and barbed wire along the West Bank built to keep out Palestinian attackers. He urged Palestinians to renounce terrorism, while pressing both sides to find the courage to achieve peace.

Vatican officials also met with Israelis to discuss bilateral issues, including travel privileges for Arab Christian clergy, Lombardi said. The Vatican has asked Israel to allow 500 priests from Arab countries to receive visas to enter Israel at will. Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused the request on security grounds, a spokesman said, but Netanyahu pledged to re-examine the matter.

At an inter-religious meeting after the pope met Netanyahu, Rabbi David Rosen took the normally shy Benedict’s hand as he joined others in singing “Lord Grant Us Peace, Shalom, Saalam” – peace in Hebrew and Arabic.

“The pope loved it,” Rosen said.

On the next-to-last day of his pilgrimage, Benedict drew the largest crowd of his trip, some 50,000 people at an open-air Mass in Nazareth. He issued a message of reconciliation, urging Christians and Muslims to overcome recent strife and “reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice.”

The choice of Nazareth – home to many key sites in Christianity – as the venue reflected the interfaith strains the pope has tried to ease. The city, in northern Israel’s Galilee region, is the country’s largest Arab city. Roughly two-thirds of its 65,000 people are Muslims and a third are Christians. While the two communities usually get along, they have come into sporadic conflict.

A decade ago, Muslims outraged Christians by building an unauthorized mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus to Mary. Israeli authorities later tore down the mosque. Muslim activists also have periodically marched through the city in shows of strength meant to intimidate Christians.

In his homily, Benedict spoke of the tensions that have harmed interfaith relations.

“I urge people of goodwill in both communities to repair the damage that has been done … to work to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence,” he said.

Many at the Mass swayed back and forth to Arabic music played over loudspeakers, clapping and waving yellow and white Vatican flags. The pope passed through the crowd in his white popemobile, led by a procession of priests and bishops in flowing white robes.

The Mass was celebrated on Mount Precipice, where Christian tradition says a mob tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth and traveled through the Galilee with his disciples preaching and performing miracles in the final years of his life. Like Bethlehem in the West Bank, Nazareth once had a solid Christian majority, but church followers have left in the tens of thousands to seek a better life elsewhere.

Addressing a crowd of faithful, Benedict turned to the plight of the shrinking presence of Christians, saying “it is essential that you should be united among yourselves.”

AP-ES-05-14-09 1754EDT

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