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.