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JORDAN-ROUNDUP May-8-2009 (1,050 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope opens Holy Land visit with call for tolerance, visit to disabled

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI began an eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land with an appeal for tolerance and a gesture of charity.

Arriving in Jordan May 8, the 82-year-old pontiff 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 at the Amman airport.

An hour later, the pope made the first stop of his pilgrimage: a visit to several hundred men and women served by a church-run center for the disabled in Amman. There he spoke movingly of the struggle to make sense of suffering and the church's effort to help the afflicted.

The pope was making his first trip to an Arab country, the first leg of a journey that was later to take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He was met at Queen Alia International Airport outside Amman by Jordan's King Abdullah II, who has championed interfaith dialogue and defended the historic protection of religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim country.

The pope commended Jordan for curbing extremism and said its leaders had promoted "a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam."

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.

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.

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.

The pope's stop at the Regina Pacis center underscored the church's efforts to meet a serious health care need in Jordan. It is estimated that 10 percent of Jordanian young people under age 19 suffer from a serious disability.

The ultramodern center is operated by three Comboni Missionary Sisters and a team of teachers, therapists and volunteers to educate and care for Muslims and Christians with disabilities free of charge.

The pontiff arrived at the center to loud cheers, and he waded into a huge crowd of well-wishers as a band played the "gerpe" -- a Jordanian bagpipe -- and tabla, or hand drums.

In a speech, he acknowledged that it's sometimes "difficult to find a reason for what appears only as an obstacle to be overcome or even as a pain -- physical or emotional -- to be endured." Faith in God and his unconditional love provides the necessary perspective, and prayer can help heal spiritual and emotional wounds, he said.

The pope told the crowd at the center that, unlike pilgrims of old, he had 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," he said.

Later, the pope met with King Abdullah, Queen Rania, his wife, and other members of the royal family at their palace. The two leaders held private talks, posed for photographers and exchanged gifts.

En route to Jordan, the pope spoke briefly with reporters aboard his Alitalia charter jet, saying he hoped his pilgrimage would aid the Middle East peace process by highlighting the value of prayer and convincing people to leave behind factional interests.

"We are not a political power but a spiritual force, and this spiritual force is something that can contribute to progress in the search for peace," the pope said.

As believers, he said, Christians are convinced of the power of prayer.

"It opens the world to God, and we are convinced that God listens and can work in history. And I think that if millions of believers pray this is truly a force that can have an influence and advance the cause of peace," he said.

The pope said it was a difficult time for the beleaguered Christian population in the Holy Land, but also a time of hope, of a "new beginning and new effort on the way of peace."

Christian communities are an important component of the life of Middle Eastern countries, and the church wants to encourage them to have the "courage, the humility and the patience to remain in these countries," he said.

For their part, he said, the Christian communities contribute to society especially through their networks of schools and hospitals. Schools in particular -- including the university the pope will lay the foundation stone for in Jordan -- help bring Christians and Muslims together, he said.

"They meet here and speak to each other. It's also a place where a Christian elite is formed that is prepared precisely to work for peace," he said.

The pope was scheduled to visit a major mosque in Amman the next day and speak to a group of Muslim academics and international diplomats.

- - -

Contributing to this story were Cindy Wooden and Doreen Abi Raad in Amman.


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