Pope Heads To Israel After Fence-Mending Trip To Jordan

In Jordan, Pope Benedict XVI sought to stress the importance of religion in public life as a way to find common ground with Jewish and Muslim groups.

Amman, Jordan – The overall feeling in Jordan is one of pride and positivity as Pope Benedict XVI leaves for Israel after a “Christian pilgrimage” that doubled as an opportunity to smooth the Vatican’s strained relations with both Muslim and Jewish communities.

On Sunday, the third day of his week-long trip to the Middle East, the pope held an open air Mass in a Jordanian soccer stadium, urging the region’s Christians to persevere in their faith despite hardships threatening their ancient communities.

Speaking on Saturday in the company of Christian and Muslim leaders, the pope discussed “the essential relationship between God and the world,” which he said was the common ground between the religions.

It’s this theme – the importance of a vigorous role for religion in public life – that the pope sought to stress as a way to find common ground between the Abrahamic faith traditions.

“The opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own,” he said. “The need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly.”

Mending fences

Muslims throughout the world reacted angrily when the pope gave a speech at a German university in 2006, which appeared to associate Islam with violence and irrational extremism. And in 2009, many in the Jewish community were up in arms after the pope reversed the excommunication of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson.

This weekend, the pope reached out to both groups. In a speech at Mt. Nebo, where Moses was supposed to have looked out over promised land, he described the “inseparable bond” between the Catholic church and the Jewish people, and called for reconciliation between the two faiths. In another address, at the huge new King Hussein bin Talal mosque in an affluent area of Amman, he mentioned his “deep respect for the Muslim community,” and praised Jordanian leaders for their contributions to education, interfaith dialogue, and “a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.”

Jordanians skeptical of rapprochement

Many Jordanians said they were pleased that the Pope was visiting their country, but faith that the pilgrimage would bring about any rapprochement between Muslims and the West was in short supply.

“There is no hope in any of these [leaders]... No Arabs! No Pope! Only God,” proclaimed Abdullah Abdulkhader, just before Friday prayer at the Husseni mosque, in one of Amman’s oldest areas. Neither religious dialogue nor the government, Abdulkhader said, would lead to any improvement in the lot of Arabs, particularly Palestinians.

A refugee from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, now easily in his 60s, he rents out used cardboard cartons for latecomers to use as makeshift prayer mats. On Fridays, the mass of the faithful praying in the Husseini mosque fills the building and the courtyard, and spills out into the streets on either side.

The mosque is widely associated with conservative Islamic groups, and is the starting point for many of Amman’s rare political demonstrations. But despite loud objections to the papal visit from Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, there were few negative reactions from those coming to pray on Friday. In fact, many seemed more concerned about how the Pope perceived them than about insults to their religion.

Sa’ed Haddad, who for 17 years has worked the counter at a bookstore across from the mosque, says the papal visit was definitely a good thing. “As Muslims, we always welcome coexistence and communication … this matters to us, so people can know how peaceful we are,” he says, adding that he hopes the pope’s travels in the region would make the leader more aware of the suffering of Muslims.

Mohammad Hasan Batat, who came to pray, puts it more simply: “Islam is not a terrorist religion.”

“In the Arab world, we care about the West,” says Salah Ahmad, another worshiper, wearing white traditional garments, with a huge black beard and a deeply sun-worn face. “We care that through this visit, the Pope will take positions [on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] so that the Arabs will be free of injustices that are committed against them by the West and the world.”

But while he says he hopes this will happen, he’s not optimistic that the discussion will make anything better for Muslims who are suffering as a result of stereotypes. “Dialogue is supposed to reach a goal and a solution,” he says: “To reach better understanding, and not view Muslims as terrorists.”

Sadness over how the West views Islam

Many here feel that no amount of dialogue will change Westerners’ negative attitudes about Muslims. According to John L. Esposito, the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and co-author of the recent book “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” this focus on what the West thinks of Muslims is not surprising.

“In my experience traveling across the Muslim world, particularly post-9/11, there’s very much a sense of many Muslims feeling that, as it were, Islam is under siege: Islam is misunderstood, Islam and Muslims are equated with extremism and terrorism,” he says. The polling data gathered for his book supports the same conclusion, he adds.

But while for many in Amman, “interfaith dialogue” means nice words with no effect on reality, Mr. Esposito thinks that the Pope’s visit could pave the way for changes that could really mean something, from how religion is taught in mosques and seminaries to how faith communities respond to crises and disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Asian tsunami. Mr. Esposito is also a former Catholic theologian, and is involved in the “A Common Word Between Us and You” initiative, which was started by Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad, as a way of responding to the Pope’s divisive 2006 speech.

In 2008, the initiative organized interfaith theological conferences at Yale and Cambridge Universities; a third conference, to be held at Georgetown University this October, will look at how to make interfaith dialogue lead to real world change.

Could concern over secularism bring unity?

In the end, like some in the Vatican, Esposito thinks it will be the struggle to keep faith involved in public life that brings the two together.

“What is often missed, by many on both sides, is that at the end of the day there’s a core of religious belief and outlook that many Catholics and Muslims share,” he says. “They’re very concerned about family values and they’re certainly very concerned about secularism … that is not simply separation of church and state, but secularism that is antireligious.”

For many in Jordan, though, that dialogue won’t become meaningful until they perceive Christians and Jews as having stopped thinking of Islam as inferior. And there are many who still hold out for a more formal apology from the pope.

“All the Muslims are angry with him, not because he’s the Pope, but because he insulted the Prophet [Mohammad],” says Abdulrahman Sleiman, a former teacher with a degree in philosophy, who was praying at the Husseini mosque. “If [dialogue] is the pope’s goal, we think it could definitely help. But he’s coming here for Christian rites that concern him only.”