Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Holy Eucharist at the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Pope Benedict starts his most difficult visit yet to his German homeland on Thursday, touring mostly Protestant and atheist regions in the ex-communist east after previous visits to Catholic strongholds in the Rhineland and his native Bavaria.

Berlin - Germans opposed to Pope Benedict's teachings on sexuality and angry at cases of abuse by priests protested in Berlin on Thursday while members of parliament boycotted a speech by the pontiff at the start of his four-day visit to his homeland.

The pope met Chancellor Angela Merkel, leading politicians and Jewish figures and received warm applause during a speech to parliament in the Reichstag building, a rare honour.

But about 100 deputies in the 620-seat parliament boycotted his speech, which sparked heated debates among ordinary Germans about the separation of church and state.

Some 8 000 people opposed to Benedict's conservative views on sexuality and the scandals of priests molesting youths protested in central Berlin, carrying banners reading “Go home, pope” and “Less religion = more human rights.”

The pope even heard criticism from a Jewish leader otherwise deeply appreciative of his desire to improve relations between Christians and Jews. The community leader warned him Jews would be hurt if wartime Pope Pius XII were beatified.

The Bavarian-born pontiff ended the day with a mass for 70 000 who prayed in the rain at the city's Olympic Stadium.

Benedict began the day with an appeal for Germans not to leave the church because of the sexual abuse scandals, which drove a record 181 000 to quit the pews in protest last year.

“The Church is a net of the Lord that pulls in good fish and bad fish,” he said, using a gospel image of Jesus as a fisherman. But this failed to soothe protesters kept at a safe distance from his meetings by a high-security police clampdown on central Berlin.

“This is impossibly arrogant, it shows he is not of this world,” said 62-year-old Dirk Friedrich, who grew up in a Catholic children's home where he said violent abuse was rife.

“It was the Church and this pope who allowed all of the abuse to be swept under the carpet,” said Friedrich in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, where the banners included one reading “Better God without a Church than a Church without God”.

But tens of thousands of Catholics thronged the stadium, including hundreds of pilgrims from nearby Poland wearing long red capes with a cross and the image of Christ.

“We love him and wanted to show that while there are those who protest, there are so many people who love him,” said 23-year-old Pole Anna Ogorzalek who travelled 10 hours by bus.

“For decades we had a difficult time as Catholics in the communist East Germany, so it is really great Benedict has come to see us,” said 50-year-old nurse Walburga Treibmann from Brandenburg state near Berlin.

The Church in Germany has received almost 600 requests for compensation for victims of sexual and physical abuse, while a victims' association estimates that more than 2 000 people were mistreated by Catholic priests in recent decades.

Benedict said he understood that people were “scandalised by these crimes” but urged Catholics to stay in the church as it worked to right the wrongs done in its ranks.

During his speech in parliament, several rows of empty seats could be seen where left-wing deputies boycotted the session.

“The pope can celebrate mass wherever he wants - in a field, a church or the Olympic Stadium. But he should not speak in the Bundestag,” said Hans-Christian Stroebele of the Greens, who walked out during the address in the historic Reichstag.

But one passage praising “the rise of the ecological movement in German politics since the 70s” got such applause from other Green MPs that Benedict pointed out: “I am not here to make propaganda for any particular political party”. - Reuters