Pope embarks on Mideast fence-mending trip
His pilgrimage this week is also a chance to reassure Jews and Muslims about Vatican views.
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As he arrived in Jordan Friday on his first trip to an Arab country, the pope was met at the airport by King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Muslim and Christian leaders. A band played the Vatican and Jordanian national anthems, and the pope and the king then inspected an honor guard.Skip to next paragraph
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During his stay, Benedict will visit the largest mosque in Amman and speak with Muslim leaders, some of whom are still angry over the 2006 speech. Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group in parliament, has called for a papal apology.
But it was Jordan's Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, led by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the king's religion adviser, that spearheaded the 2007 letter to all Christian churches from 138 global Muslim leaders. Aimed at heading off future conflict, "A Common Word Between You and Us" sparked high-level dialogues in 2008 based on shared values of "love of God and love of the neighbor."
This week's meeting offers the pope his greatest opportunity to lay out in public his vision for Catholic-Muslim relations. "Benedict XVI believes the real clash of civilizations in the world today runs not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief," says Vatican correspondent John Allen, in the National Catholic Reporter. "His priority is a grand partnership with Muslims in defense of a robust role for religion in public affairs, as well as shared values such as the family and the sanctity of life." But first, concerns between the two faiths must be addressed.
The pope will also travel to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site on the east bank of the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by John. King Abdullah has donated land in the area to several Christian churches, and the pope will bless the cornerstone of a Catholic cathedral under construction.
"The site is a Christian worship center and a national park, where, apart from the churches being built, we'll keep the area where John [the Baptist] lived as pristine as possible in a state of wilderness," says a high palace source. A center at the park will host Christian-Muslim conferences.
Christian communities in the Holy Land descend from the earliest churches. But there has been an exodus from the region since 1948, with the Christian population dropping from 20 percent to less than 2 percent. The pope comes at a time of deep distress.
"The local church has been quietly opposed to the visit, partly because it's so close to Israel's incursion into Gaza," says the Rev. Drew Christiansen, editor of America magazine and a former church official in the Holy Land. (The Catholic pastor in Gaza has questioned why the pope would come at this time, particularly without visiting Gaza.)
The Catholic Church also has been in difficult negotiations for years with the Israeli government, which has cut back on visas for church personnel. The church recognized Israel in 1993 in an agreement that other treaties would follow to resolve tax and property issues. But negotiations have dragged on. Many feel the pope should not have come without resolution of some of these longstanding concerns, Father Christiansen says.