AMMAN (Reuters) – Pope Benedict began a delicate trip to the Middle East on Friday by expressing “deep respect” for Islam and saying the Catholic Church would do everything it could to help the region’s stalled peace process.
Starting the first leg of a trip that will include Israel and the Palestinian territories, he also called for a three-way dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews to help peace.
“Certainly I will try to make a contribution to peace, not as an individual but in the name of the Catholic Church, of the Holy See,” he told reporters on the plane taking him to Jordan.
“We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process,” he said.
The Holy See has full diplomatic relations with most of the countries in the Middle East and a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
“As believers we are convinced that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history and I think that if millions of believers pray it really is a force that has influence and can make a contribution to moving ahead with peace,” 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 faith-based 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.
The 82-year-old pope appeared careful to avoid overtly politically tinged statements at the start of his first visit to the region, stressing instead the potential of religion to resolve conflicts.
Benedict’s trip is taking place in the long shadow of his Regensburg speech in 2006, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying Islam was violent and irrational.
The speech still rankles in the Islamic world and Jordanian Islamist leaders have denounced the visit, saying he should apologize for it first.
Benedict seemed to be at pains to put the speech, which he says was misinterpreted, behind him.
“My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community,” Benedict said in his arrival address, praising King Abdullah for his work in “promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.”
KING TALKS POLITICS
King Abdullah, who gave the pope a warm welcome at Amman airport, did not, however, skirt the specific political problems of the region and gave the pope a taste of the difficulties he will find on the next leg of his trip in Israel.
“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, calling for a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since being sworn in as head of Israel’s new, right-leaning government on March 31, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not specifically discussed establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a U.S. and Arab priority.
Anything the pope says on the subject will echo around the region, particularly when he visits a Palestinian refugee camp within sight of the barrier Israel has built near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
“I believe the pope carries a message that will express the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation,” said Archbishop Michel Sabbah, patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem and a Palestinian.
“I think he will send a message that will express the injustice that has fallen on the Palestinians, whether Christians or Muslims,” Sabah told Reuters at Amman airport.
The trip mirrors the historic journey made in 2000 by the late Pope John Paul, who managed to achieve the personal feat of being equally admired by Jews and Muslims.
On Saturday in Jordan the pope will visit a mosque — only the second during his papacy — and the site where the Bible says Moses viewed the Promised Land and died.
(Writing by Philip Pullella, additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi, editing by Mark Trevelyan)SOURCE