AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Jordan on the first leg of a Holy Land pilgrimage and praised the country’s efforts to oppose conflict and violence between the West and the Islamic world.
At an airport welcoming ceremony in Amman May 8, the pope expressed his “deep respect for the Muslim community” and paid tribute to interfaith dialogue initiatives launched by Jordanian leaders.
“We can say that these worthy initiatives have achieved much good in furthering an alliance of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, confounding the predictions of those who consider violence and conflict inevitable,” he said in a speech.
He commended Jordan for curbing extremism and protecting the religious freedom of the country’s Christian minority and said its leaders had promoted “a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.”
The 82-year-old pontiff appeared energetic, quickly descending from the plane on the first stop on an eight-day pilgrimage that was later to take him to Israel and Palestinian territories. His visit to Jordan was his first to an Arab country.
He was met at Queen Alia International Airport outside Amman by King Abdullah II of Jordan and Queen Rania, his wife. The king had announced he would break protocol to personally greet the pope at the airport and to send him off three days later.
After a cannon salute and the playing of the Vatican and Jordanian national anthems, the pope and king disappeared from public view for several minutes before entering a tent and giving their formal speeches.
King Abdullah told the pope that Muslims, Christians and Jews – as “believers in the one God” – have an obligation to love God and to love one another, commandments that are found in the holy books of all three faiths.
The king said that when Pope John Paul II visited in 2000 the pontiff had emphasized the importance of dialogue to promote respect among believers and peace in the world. Later events, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, proved that Pope John Paul was right, the king said.
“Voices of provocation, ambitious ideologies of division, threaten unspeakable suffering. We must reject such a course for our world’s future. Here and now we must create a new and global dialogue, of understanding and good will,” he said.
Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country, is considered a model for Christian-Muslim relations, and the members of the royal family have led the way in promoting interreligious dialogue.
The open letter that launched the Common Word initiative in 2007, a moderate Muslim dialogue effort, was written by Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, who was among the first to greet the pope at the airport.
Pope Benedict said he had come to Jordan as a pilgrim to visit Christian holy places, including Mount Nebo, from which Moses saw the Promised Land, and the Jordan River, where Christ was baptized.
He said the fact that he would bless foundation stones for new churches near the baptism site reflected well on Jordan’s respect for religion and protection of religious rights.
“Religious freedom is, of course, a fundamental right, and 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.
King Abdullah told the pope all Jordanian citizens – Christians and Muslims – are equal citizens under law and “all share in creating our country’s future.”
The king also prayed that the pope’s visit would give new energy to efforts to promote peace throughout the Middle East, but especially in the Holy Land.
He spoke about creating a “neighborhood of peace, where every family can enjoy the blessings of safety, where no child will be held back by violence and destruction, where all communities will know the power of reconciliation, and where the Palestinian people will find an end to occupation and suffering and share, at last, in the rightful dignity of freedom.”
Muslims make up about 92 percent of the Jordanian population; the Arab Christian community in Jordan, which has existed on this land since the time of Jesus, is estimated today at between 3 percent and 6 percent. Catholics in Jordan number about 109,000, according to the latest church statistics.
The pope praised the country’s leaders for supporting efforts to find a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In late April, King Abdullah met with U.S. President Barack Obama and urged him to make decisive moves for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, warning that a new Middle East war could erupt if no real progress is made over the next 18 months.
The king met more recently with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to try to relaunch serious peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution.
The pope favorably noted Jordan’s welcoming of refugees from Iraq. Jordan has absorbed an estimated 700,000 Iraqi refugees, including some 70,000 Christians, according to church sources. In addition, Jordan is home to 1.9 million Palestinian refugees who have been forced to leave their homes on land occupied by Israel since 1948.
Outside the airport, hundreds of schoolchildren cheered as the papal motorcade passed. Wearing kaffiyehs and papal-visit caps, they waved Vatican flags and held banners with various welcome messages written in Arabic.
After leaving the airport, the pope was to visit a church-run center for the disabled in Amman and later in the day make a courtesy visit to the king and queen at the royal palace.
While the official Jordanian welcome was warm and cordial, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front, have criticized the pope’s visit and insisted that he should apologize for his 2006 speech that linked Islam and violence.