Pope’s Mission of Peace in Jordan

Pope Benedict XVI reached out to Muslims and Christians in the first leg of his Holy Land pilgrimage.

Pope Benedict XVI came to Jordan as a pilgrim and pastoral father, but clearly "peacemaker" and "bridge-builder" was the mission hoped for by Christians and Muslims alike.

The Holy Father's May 8-11 visit to Jordan was his first to an Arab country. Jordanian Christians — who barely make up 4% of the country's population of nearly 6 million — exuberantly welcomed the Pope, along with pilgrims from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt and even the United States.

"We are so happy the Pope came to Jordan, a Muslim country," said 23-year-old Raneem Shaheen, a Latin-rite Catholic from Amman. "We felt so close to all the other Christian Arabs that came from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. We feel his visit is a good step for the peace process and the dialogue between Muslims and Christians."

In his welcoming speech to the Pope, Jordanian King Abdullah recalled Pope John Paul II's 2000 visit. "Together, we affirmed the importance of coexistence and harmony between Muslim and Christian. Since that time," the king said, "events around the world have shown the urgency of our call. Voices of provocation, ambitious ideologies of division, threaten unspeakable suffering. We must reject such a course for our world's future. Today, together, we must renew our commitment to mutual respect. Here and now, we must create a new and global dialogue of understanding and good will."

"Seeing the Pope shaking hands with a Muslim king, and then the king kneeling in front of the Pope is a great message for all the world to see," said Guy Khairallah of Lebanon. The 16-year-old and three of his childhood friends were among a group of 500 who traveled more than 10 hours by bus pilgrimage sponsored by Lebanon's Voice of Charity Christian radio station.

The Pope's itinerary included visits to Mount Nebo, the King Hussein Mosque, the Melkite Cathedral of St. George in Amman and Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptized.

In his first public stop May 8 at the Our Lady of Peace Center for the disabled, youth danced to the "Welcome Benedict in Jordan" theme song blasting from the speakers as hundreds of invited eager pilgrims awaited his arrival.

Italian Comboni Sister Adriana Biolla, who serves at the center founded by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, pointed out: "We are expecting his visit may be a push for peace in the region. We are really longing for it."

After the Pope's speech at the adjoining church, Carmelite Sister Agnes Laham, who heads the ancient monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Syria, met up with fellow Carmelites who drove from Lebanon by car.

Sister Agnes pointed out that the Pope's visit will encourage governments in the Middle East "not to view Christians as a minority, but as the original roots of the family of Abraham" and to see that "Christians are living the principles that will bring real peace to the Middle East and all the world."

Muslims and Melkites

On day two in Jordan, the Pope briefly stopped inside the massive King Hussein Mosque for a respectful moment of reflection, accompanied by Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, the top religious adviser to his cousin, the king. Outside the mosque, the Pope told the crowd of diplomats and religious leaders that twisting of religion, rather than faith itself, could be a source of violence.

"The contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions sadly cannot be denied," the Pope said. "However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division and at times even violence in society?"

Hamdi Murad, professor of religious studies at the University of Jordan, noted after the Pope's speech that it "will be a 'golden bridge' between Muslims and Christians and will add more positive points for the dialogue between Muslims and Christians."

At the May 9 vespers prayer ceremony at the Melkite Cathedral of Saint George in Amman, Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham handed his pastoral staff to the Pope as he greeted him at the entrance.

"We hope this visit — the Pope's first visit to the Arab world — will be a door to enter more and more into dialogue with Islam," said the patriarch afterwards, among the jubilant crowd gathered outside after the Pope's departure from the church.

"I think his visit is also encouraging Christians to stay here and to be serving the Lord and witnessing: he, the Lord who is the lover of mankind. He is not the Lord of aggression, of war or of violence. He is the Lord of peace and love," Patriarch Gregorios said.

Sister Philip Kirma of the Chaldean Sisters of Mary Immaculate traveled from Baghdad with five other sisters from her order to see the Pope.

"The Pope coming here to an Islamic country reinforces that all of us — Christian and Muslim — are brothers. We hope that — with the prayers of the whole world — everything will soon be okay in Iraq," Sister Philip said. "Half of the Christians have emigrated from Iraq. We hope that those who are still there will remain."

Fellow Chaldean Catholic Nidhal Joekarmo and her husband came all the way from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to see the Pope. Attending Sunday's papal Mass in Amman Stadium, they hoped that the Pope can push peace in the Middle East, especially in their native Iraq. "We need help," Joekarmo said of her homeland, noting that Iraq is being emptied of Christians.

The Pope affirmed that peace was his hope, too. As he was leaving Jordan, he said, "I want you to know that I hold in my heart — all who live throughout this region."

"I pray that you may enjoy peace and prosperity," he said, "now and for generations to come."

Doreen Abi Raad is based in Beirut, Lebanon.

She filed this report from Amman.