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High expectations for papal visit

AMMAN // Pope Benedict’s scheduled visit in May is already stirring
excitement in Jordan, where it is hoped his tour will give a boost to
Jordan’s Christian pilgrimage sites and promote interfaith dialogue.

“We
are happy that he is visiting Jordan, particularly that it is the first
stop of the Holy Land tour,” Rifaat Bader, a Catholic priest and
spokesman for the Jordanian leg of the pope’s trip, said.

“It is a point of pride for Jordan to receive two heads of the Catholic Church in less than 10 years.”

The
pontiff will pray at the Church of the Baptism of Jesus Christ, the
first Catholic church at the Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the pilgrimage
site where Jesus Christ is said to have been baptised. The site was a
point of dispute between Jordan and Israel and was officially
recognised by Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, who visited
Jordan in 2000, the first papal visit to the Middle East since the 1967
war.
“The pope’s visit is a great honour for Jordan and it will help
promote the country’s tourist sites as well as the Baptism site, which
will boost Jordan’s tourism,” said Fakhri Iskandar, a Christian member
of parliament.

The pope is also expected to visit King Hussein
Ben Talal Mosque and meet Muslim scholars. “The meeting will open new
doors for interfaith dialogue, not only in Jordan but throughout the
world,” Fr Bader said.

Some church officials are hoping that the
mosque’s visit will help repair some of the damage caused by the pope’s
statements in 2006 when he quoted a Byzantine emperor that described
Islam as evil and inhumane.

His statement caused a furore in
the Islamic world and interrupted interfaith dialogue, until Prince
Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, the chairman of the Royal Aal al Bayt
Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, spearheaded a peaceful
initiative that later led to the establishment of the permanent
Catholic-Muslim forum in 2008, tasked with holding annual summits in
the Vatican and Arab countries.

Despite the excitement, some
church leaders said they were not expecting crowds to be as large as
those who greeted John Paul II, due to recent controversy surrounding
the Holocaust.

Last month, the pope lifted the excommunications
of four bishops, one of whom was a Holocaust denier and said there were
no gas chambers used in any concentration camp. The pope later
disassociated himself from the bishop and said the Roman Catholic
Church was “profoundly and irrevocably committed” to rejecting
anti-Semitism.

“There is not much enthusiasm to his visit
compared with Pope John Paul II. We are trying to encourage the
Christian community to take part in welcoming the pope. In 2000, we did
not feel that we had to encourage people to do so,” said a church
official, requesting anonymity.

“The image Jordanians hold of
Pope John Paul II is that of a shepherd, while Pope Benedict is that of
a teacher who delivers sermons whose meanings are not as clear as Pope
John Paul’s sermons were.”

Still, for Jordan, the pope’s visit is significant. Jordan and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1994.

Last
year, the Vatican appointed Archbishop Fouad Twal as the Vatican’s most
senior representative in the Holy Land. He is the first Jordanian to
assume this post.
Although the pope is scheduled to visit Israel,
analysts want Pope Benedict to follow in the lead of his predecessor in
supporting Palestinian rights. “We want the pope to continue supporting
the Vatican’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians,” said Jamil al
Nimri, an analyst with the Alghad newspaper.

“Jordan always had distinguished ties with the Vatican. The Vatican has acknowledged religious sites in Jordan.”

Christians
are concerned about their diminishing community in the Holy Land.
Christians in Jordan make up about four per cent of the country’s 5.8
million population.

“It will help highlight the dwindling
presence of indigenous Christians in the region … who have emigrated
because of the political instability,” said Amin Mseeh, a Catholic
Church activist in Amman.

“The pope’s pilgrimage in the country will reinforce Jordan’s position as a custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem,” he said.

Under the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, Jordan is the official custodian of the holy sites in East Jerusalem.

smaayeh@thenational.ae

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090225/FOREIGN/898246042/1011/SPORT

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