MADABA, Jordan — Standing on the mountain where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land, Pope John Paul II prayed that peace and justice would come to the modern peoples of the troubled region.
His face lit by the afternoon sun on the heights of Jordan's Mount Nebo, the Pope looked out upon a dramatic biblical landscape stretching from the Dead Sea to Galilee.
“Our gaze directed to Jerusalem, let us lift up our prayer to almighty God for all the peoples living in the lands of the promise: Jews, Muslims and Christians,” the Pope said.
“They share the same place of blessing, where the history of salvation has left an indelible trace. ... Bestow upon all who live here the gift of a true peace, justice and fraternity.”
The ruins of a sixth-century church that commemorates the place of Moses’ death provided a setting for the Pope's stop, about 25 miles southwest of Amman and a few miles from the hill city of Madaba, where thousands of residents cheered as his motorcade passed.
It was the first day of a weeklong visit to holy places in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories where Christ first announced the Gospel. The Pope began his Jubilee pilgrimage in prayer at the Vatican Feb. 23, since he was unable to visit Iraq, then continued his journey in Egypt, where he visited Mount Sinai and evoked the start of Moses’ mission.
Before stepping out onto a Mount Nebo platform March 20 to take in the panorama facing Jerusalem, the Holy Father said he wanted to turn the focus of his pilgrimage toward Christ: “To him I dedicate every step of this journey I am making to this land, which was his land.”
He traveled by car to the biblical mountain plateau shortly after arriving at Amman's Queen Alia Airport, where he appealed for regional peace and interreligious cooperation.
After kissing a bowl of earth, he was warmly welcomed by Jordan's 38-year-old King Abdullah, who called the 79-year-old Vicar of Christ “a symbol of all that is pure and noble in this life.”
The Pope, seated at a wooden table inside a temporary pavilion on the tarmac, encouraged the king's efforts to promote tolerance and reconciliation in the Middle East.
“Your Majesty, I know how deeply concerned you are for peace in your own land and in the entire region and how important it is for you that all Jordanians — Muslims and Christians — should consider themselves as one people and one family,” the Pope said.
He alluded to a 50-year-old problem in Jordan and throughout the region: the great number of Palestinians forced to leave their homes by past wars.
“In this area of the world there are grave and urgent issues of justice, of the rights of peoples and nations, which have to be resolved for the good of all concerned and as a condition for lasting peace,” John Paul insisted. “No matter how difficult, no matter how long, the process of seeking peace must continue.”
His Tiny Flock
The Pope had words of encouragement for his tiny flock of 71,000 Catholics in Jordan, who represent just more than 1% of the population. He said the Church's attitude of cooperation is embodied in its 85 schools and charitable institutions, open to Muslims and Christians alike.
“The three monotheistic religions count peace, goodness and respect for the human person among their highest values,” he noted. “I earnestly hope that my visit will strengthen the already fruitful Catholic-Muslim dialogue” in Jordan.
The Holy Father praised the tradition of religious freedom in predominantly Muslim Jordan, which has largely been protected by the country's Hashemite rulers. He met privately with King Abdullah later in the evening to discuss interreligious dialogue and prospects for Middle East peace.
In his airport speech, the king said the Pope had already brought a light of hope by visiting the region and had served the cause of peace by reminding people of “the virtues of faith and the absolute need for forgiveness of one's enemies.”
Three doves symbolizing peace were released in front of the Pope after he stepped off his airplane, which was escorted into Jordanian airspace by three fighter planes. Security around the papal motorcade route was heavy, and soldiers stood sentry in the bushes around the Mount Nebo church grounds.
“I think we're blessed to have the opportunity to see his Holiness, especially in the Holy Land,” Carmelite Brother Alberto told the Register following Mass March 18 at the Notre Dame chapel in Jerusalem.
He was hoping to get a chance to do just that during the Pope's scheduled visit to Notre Dame where he was expected to engage in religious dialogue with Jewish and Muslim leaders. “It would be very exciting to be in the same room with him,” Brother Alberto said. “The Holy Father's visit is, for me, very important. It gives impetus to our work and to our ministry.”
Like several other institutions hosting the Pope, Notre Dame curtailed its regular activities during the papal visit to ensure the tightest possible security and the free flow of traffic. Warned of huge snarl-ups, many kept their cars at home, especially Jerusalemites.
Some 18,000 Israeli police and 4,000 soldiers were assigned to “Operation Old Friend,” the name Israel's security establishment used for the visit. An unspecified number of Palestinian personnel kept the peace in the area of Bethlehem.
Most Israelis welcomed the visit. According to a Gallup poll commissioned by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel just before John Paul's arrival, 60% of Israelis viewed his coming “positively.” More than half of those polled, 55%, expressed interest in engaging in inter-religious dialogue with Christians.
Realizing that many Israelis view the Catholic Church as historically antiSemitic, the Anti-Defamation League ran a two-page ad in all major Israeli newspapers enumerating Pope John Paul's many pro-Israel and pro-Jewish statements and actions.
“It's important that the people of Israel know the Pope's views on Judaism, Israel and the Shoah [Holocaust],” League spokeswoman Laura Kamm told the Register. “There is a significant amount of negativity toward the Catholic Church and Christianity in general due to historical events, most recently the Holocaust and the Church's perceived role in it. We believe this Pope to have a very special and forward-looking relationship to Jews and Israel.”
While the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations welcomed the Pope's plea, made March 12, for forgiveness for past wrongs committed by individual Catholics, Israel's chief rabbi expressed disappointment that the Pope did not specifically refer to the Holocaust, or the Church's role — as an institution — in the tragedy.
Many historians dispute whether the Church could have done more to save the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Numerous priests and lay people were killed by the Nazis, who viewed the Church as an enemy.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who spent his early childhood in the Auschwitz concentration camp and lost his parents during the Holocaust, told Reuters, “This forgiveness itself is an accomplishment. For the first time a Pope comes and says ‘I confess.’ He is confessing about crimes of very many members of the Church who made sins against the Jewish people.”
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem. (CNS contributed to this report.)