AMMAN // He arrived as a pilgrim wishing to play tribute to the holy places that played an important part in biblical history. But even before his arrival in Jordan yesterday it was clear Pope Benedict XVI realised he could not avoid the politics of the region.
As the Alitalia jet carried the pontiff en route from Rome, the Pope explained that he saw a role for religion, and the Catholic Church, to mediate in conflicts in the Middle East. "We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality that can contribute to progress in the peace process," he said. He told reporters that peace efforts were often blocked by partisan interests and that the Church could "help reasonable position bloom" and that it wanted to engage Jews and Muslims in a dialogue for peace.
"A trilateral dialogue must move forward. It is very important for peace and also to allow each person to live his or her faith well," he said on the plane. When the Pope leaves Jordan on Monday, he will head to Israel for talks with political and religious leaders there. Israel's new right-wing government has not yet committed to a two-state solution, and many Muslims are looking to the Pope to push the government on that issue.
It is also an issue that resonates in Jordan, where nearly half of the country's population are Palestinians. King Abdullah touched on what the Pope could expect in his own welcoming speech. "Our shared values can make an important contribution in the Holy Land, where together we must help lift the shadow of conflict," the king told him, adding that the two-state solution was the only option. Every gesture, and every word of some 25 speeches and four masses at sites sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews will be carefully scrutinised, analysts said.
"The Pope is talking about a spiritual tour but the region he is visiting is deeply troubled," said Yaser Abu Hilaleh, a political analyst with the Alghad newspaper. "His message is to promote peace but the expectations are high in the region. As an Arab citizen, I expect the Pope's visit to act as moral deterrent to Israel's assault on the Palestinians." Jordan, which prides itself on religious diversity, has been an ardent supporter of interfaith dialogue and Abdullah praised the Pope for his attempt to promote greater understanding among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Although the latter make up less than four per cent of Jordan's nearly six million population, they awaited his visit no less anxiously. Some will never forget the Pope's first day in the Middle East. "Oh my God I touched his hand," said Chantelle Raad to her friends who looked on in amazement. The hardships of the eight-hour drive from Beirut, the sleeping rough in a convent in Amman the night before and then a long, dull wait for Benedict to arrive was forgotten when the pontiff briefly clasped Ms Raad's hand yesterday outside the Our Lady of Peace Centre for the physically disabled, the Pope's first stop on his Jordan tour.
"It is one of the most important days of my life and I didn't want him to let go of my hand," she said. "I hope people will see what Christianity is, it is love and we want to follow the Pope," said her friend, Father Hayaf Fakhry, a Carmelite monk who made the journey with her. "The Pope is our father and it didn't matter to us how long it took to get here." There were no spontaneous American or European-style crowds cheering the Pope from the roads because most of the route from the airport to the disabled centre was blocked by heavily armed Jordanian soldiers.
Attendance was by invitation only but from the moment those famous red loafers stepped out of the sleek black Mercedes it was clear the crowd of Arab Christians from churches all over the region were determined to show their support. "We are afraid for him and what he might say because so many people misinterpret him," said Adriana Biollo, a Comboni nun who works at the centre which provides physiotherapy services to Jordanians of all faiths. "But we are here, we love him and have been waiting for this visit for months."
After greeting the crowds and shaking hands Pope Benedict held a brief prayer service and delivered a speech inside the adjoined church. "Like countless pilgrims before me it is now my turn to satisfy that profound wish to touch, to draw solace from and to venerate the places where Jesus lived, the places which were made holy by his presence," he said in a speech delivered from a presidential chair behind the altar.
After he spoke, a member of the congregation presented the Pope with a red and white kaffiyeh which he draped over his shoulders, prompting wild cheers from the pews. The Pope smiled graciously before two aides quickly took it off and folded it away. For Aida Shishani, 50, a disabled volunteer, Benedict's visit was an opportunity to show respect for a figure revered by her Catholic friends. "He is a guest of our king and all of Jordan's guest," she said before being wheeled to the altar by a nun to present the pontiff with a bouquet of yellow and white lilies. "When he came in I wanted to cry. He is doing his part for peace in the region."
Benedict will meet Muslim scholars today at Al Hussein bin Talal mosque and in Israel will meet Jerusalem's Grand Mufti and Israel's two chief rabbis on Tuesday. The highlight of Pope Benedict's Jordan visit will be celebrating mass at Amman's football stadium tomorrow which 60,000 people are expected to attend. Thousands of Christians whose families have left the Arab region in recent decades because of rising tide of Islamism and lack of economic opportunities are in Amman for the Pope's visit. Some are American-Jordanians who are staying with relatives in the capital.
During a late lunch of stuffed vine leaves and boiled beef at her sister Evon's house, Theresa Hassan, who has been living in New York since 1968, explained that she would like her three children to be re-baptised in the river Jordan. "We came here to visit the Pope and my sister. I am very happy for both occasions," said Ms Hassan, 64. Her brother-in-law Victor Saman, 68, will read from the acts of Peter at the stadium tomorrow.
"I feel grateful that I am sharing in this event through the words I will read," he said. "The messenger of Jesus is coming to a country ruled by the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and it is like the two religions are coming together." firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com