At a gathering of thousands of Catholics in Nazareth on Sunday to mark an International Day of Faith, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Tual, read a personal message to him from Pope Francis lauding the primacy of the Holy Land in Christian faith.

The pope wrote: “The history of our faith finds its origins in the very land where you celebrate. Before we can understand our own personal history of faith and our need for God’s mercy, we must all turn to that place and time when Jesus himself walked among us.”

Francis, who began his term in March, is expected to visit Israel next year.

Tual led the Mass, which took place at an outdoor amphitheater on Mount Precipice. In his homily, he addressed the political challenges in the Middle East, particularly the fate of Syrian refugees.

The event marked what both church and state officials said was a new era of cooperation in advance of the pope’s visit.

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said that “this event not only symbolizes a day or year of faith – it is symbolic of the desired future coordination between the State of Israel and the Catholic Church.”

The event was one of the last in the church’s Year of Faith, which will conclude next week in Rome.

The Mass drew about 7,000 faithful from across Israel and the world, including a number of Arab countries and Europe.

Slawomir Rajzer, the leader of a group of Christians from Poland, was sitting in one of the front rows of the service.

“We have come in order to share our joy for our faith with other believers,” he said, “but also to strengthen, to deepen, our understanding of Christianity and about our attitudes for other people, believers and nonbelievers. Just toward humanity,” Rajzer said.

While other groups came from closer by – such as Sister Gaudette Marie Taloza’s group from Tiberias – their minds were elsewhere. Taloza led a group of Filipino migrant workers, many of whose families were affected by the devastating typhoon.

“They are offering the suffering and the hardships of their families to God,” Taloza said.

“All of these emotions or pains, they are offering this now to God, in the thought and in the hope that God will help to alleviate the suffering of their families.”

In addition to the spiritual nature of the day, a more earthly concern – the brutal sunlight and heat at the outdoor service – made for bizarre contrasts. For example, Taloza, dressed in traditional attire, sported a brand new brown cowboy hat emblazoned with “Jerusalem.”

She said she bought the cowboy hat because the umbrella she brought would have blocked others’ views; others in attendance didn’t share her concern, and the audience was scattered with pinwheel colored umbrellas during the solemn service.

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