AMMAN // Pope Benedict XVI warned against the "manipulation" of religion for political ends yesterday as Jordan's top religious adviser publicly thanked the pontiff for expressing regrets for a 2006 speech that was perceived as an insult to Islam. Speaking at the King Hussein bin Talal mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman on the second day of his much scrutinised, week-long pilgrimage to the Middle East, the Pope told the crowd of diplomats and religious leaders that twisting 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," he 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?" His speech came after Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, the top religious adviser to his cousin King Abdullah, attempted to draw a final line over the controversy by thanking Pope Benedict for the clarification of the 2006 Regensburg speech when he quoted a medieval emperor who described the Prophet Muhammed's teachings as "evil and inhuman".
Shortly afterwards, Pope Benedict said he regretted his comments. "Hence Muslims also especially appreciated the clarification by the Vatican that what was said in the Regensburg lecture did not reflect Your Holiness's own opinion but rather was simply a citation in an academic lecture," Prince Ghazi said yesterday. The Pope's expression was impassive as the prince spoke. He made no reference to it.
Prince Ghazi, a major figure in the arena of interfaith dialogue, is believed to be the most senior figure in the Muslim world so far to publicly express acceptance of the Pope's regrets over the controversy. There has been little popular enthusiasm from the Muslim majority country about the Pope's visit compared to the reception the public gave the late Pope John Paul II in 2000. Prince Ghazi gave the Pope a tour of the mosque, a graceful edifice of pale yellow stone where the pontiff briefly stopped in a "respectful moment of reflection" but did not "pray in a Christian sense", a Vatican spokesman said.
The only sour note was hit when he did not take off his shoes before stepping inside the mosque which everyone is required to do. A Vatican spokesman said later that the Pope did not do so because his hosts did not ask him. The papal visit to the Arab country has been defined so far by the Vatican's efforts to repair relations between the Abrahamic faiths by speaking of the common bonds between them.
At one point, Pope Benedict even referred to God as "merciful and compassionate," using the Islamic phrase when referring to Allah. However, he also hinted at the restrictions Christians face in many Muslim countries. "Religious freedom is, of course, a fundamental human 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," he said.
Earlier in the day the pontiff retraced the steps of the prophet Moses to Mount Nebo where the Bible says he saw the promised land. He prayed at the Basilica of The Memorial of Moses, a fourth century church built to commemorate the place of the prophet's death although his precise burial place is not actually known. Pope Benedict reminded Christians and Jews of their shared heritage. "May our encounter today inspire in us a renewed love for the canon of sacred scripture ... and a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews in mutual respect and co-operation," he said.
But as a foretaste of the difficult time he faces in Israel next week, the Israeli government has demanded that he explicitly condemn Catholics who deny the Holocaust. The minister of religious affairs, Yaakov Margi, said the Pope's visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial scheduled for tomorrow would give the Vatican the opportunity to "unequivocally condemn and distance itself from Holocaust deniers".
At Mount Nebo the Pope gave a brief prayer service in the open air church, which is being renovated. Then he slowly walked across a floral carpet laid out for his visit to the serpentine cross which stands on the edge of the mountain looking west towards Jerusalem. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh