The Daily Star
Pope Benedict XVI underlined his “deep respect” for Islam on Friday in Jordan, on his first trip as pontiff to an Arab state, and stressed that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Speaking after a red carpet welcome from King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at Queen Alia Airport at the start of an eight-day tour of the Holy Land, the pope said he came to Jordan “as a pilgrim.”
The visit “gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.”
The pope stressed that he viewed religious freedom as “a fundamental human right.”
“It is my fervent hope and prayer that respect for the inalienable rights and dignity of every man and woman will come to be increasingly affirmed and defended, not only throughout the Middle East, but in every part of the world,” he said.
En route to Amman, the pope told journalists that dialogue between Christianity, Judaism and Islam is “very important for peace and so that everyone can follow the tenets of their faith.”
The Church “is not a political force but a spiritual force which can contribute to the progress of the peace process” in the Middle East, he said.
Jordan’s opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF) said earlier this week the pope was not welcome unless he apologized for remarks he made in 2006, which it says targeted Islam.
“What we want is a change in his policies, so that it is in harmony with the teachings of Jesus about love, peace, justice, equality and condemnations of crimes and Zionist terrorism,” IAF chief Zaki Bani Rsheid told AFP.
In a speech the pope had quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticized some teachings of the Prophet Mohammad as “evil and inhuman.” He apologized later for the “unfortunate misunderstanding.”
In his welcoming address, King Abdullah urged an expansion of Christian-Muslim dialogue to dispel “divisions.”
Stressing the “importance of co-existence and harmony between Muslim and Christian,” the monarch warned that “voices of provocation, ambitious ideologies of division, threaten unspeakable suffering.”
“We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims … It is my hope that together we can expand the dialogue we have opened,” he told the pontiff.
Benedict then traveled to the capital some 30 kilometers away for his first stop, the Regina Pacis center for the handicapped.
The crowd sang songs in Arabic welcoming him, and chanted “benvenuto,” the Italian for “welcome,” as they ran alongside his vehicle.
“Friends, unlike the pilgrims of old, I do not come bearing gifts or offerings. I come simply with an intention, a hope, to pray for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East,” the pope said.
Christians in Jordan number around 200,000 of a total population of about 6 million.
After his arrival Benedict stressed that his first Holy Land trip as pontiff is a pilgrimage.
“I come to Jordan as a pilgrim, to venerate holy places that have played such an important part in some of the key events of biblical history,” he said.
The pope will divide his visit between Jordan and Israel, with a stop in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.
Some groups in the region have said they expect more than platitudes from the 82-year-old head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, with the visit raising a daunting array of religious and political challenges.
On Saturday he was to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II in 2000 by visiting Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed the Promised Land to Moses.
The pope concludes his visit to Jordan with a prayer at Wadi Kharrar on the east bank of the River Jordan, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized, before leaving for Tel Aviv Monday.
Israel will also roll out the red carpet, counting on the visit to help rebuild its image following its December-January offensive against the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
The Coalition for Jerusalem, an alliance of Palestinian advocacy groups, on Thursday urged him in an open letter to denounce what they called “yet another wave of Israel’s ethnic cleansing crimes” against their people.
But the pope is unlikely to want to further strain ties with Israel.
They have clashed over his decision to lift the excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson of Britain, and the sainthood dossier of Pope Pius XII, reviled by Israel for his stance during the Holocaust. – AFP