AMMAN // Pope Benedict XVI has asked Christians in the Middle East to persevere in their faith despite hardships such as the conflicts in Iraq causing them to leave their communities. An estimated 20,000 people filled a Jordanian sports stadium as the pope celebrated the first open-air Mass of his Middle East tour. "The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect the people of the Middle East," Pope Benedict said, speaking in English, at the Amman stadium.
"May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world," he said. Catholics from across the Middle East attended the service. Many held up flags from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries. They applauded the pope's words and shouted out his name. The Mass was on the third day of Benedict's week-long pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The pope was welcomed at the stadium in Arabic by the Latin rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, who recalled that Jordan has taken in more than a million Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, some 40,000 of them Christians. According to Vatican statistics, Christians account for less than two per cent of Jordan's population. The church has been alarmed by the declining presence of Christians in the region, driven out by war and economic hardship. In his homily today, the pope urged that the "material and moral assistance" Christians need will never be lacking.
He also paid tribute to Christian women in the region, saying many have "devoted their lives to building peace and fostering harmony". Father Raymond Mousalli, an Iraqi priest, said there are about 20,000 Iraqi Christians in Jordan, and Iraqis of all faiths must sit together and find peace after years of war. "The holy father speaks here, and his voice is heard in the Middle East especially by Iraqi Christians who are suffering a lot," Father Mousalli said.
In the afternoon, Benedict was scheduled to travel 50 kilometres from Amman to Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ's baptism. He will also bless the foundation stones of Latin and Greek Melkite churches. *AP