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Jordan first stop on papal Holy Land visit

Pope Benedict XVI is to arrive Friday in Amman, the Jordanian capital. His words while in the region will be carefully parsed, and the Muslim world views him with aloofness, anger and faint hope.

May 08, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

AMMAN, JORDAN — Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Jordan today on a three-day pilgrimage to bless a tiny Catholic population and improve the Vatican's relations with a Muslim world greeting him with aloofness, anger and a slight hope that he may advance peace in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

On his first visit to an Arab country, the 82-year-old pontiff is receiving little fanfare. Benedict outraged Muslims in 2006 when he quoted a medieval emperor's condemnation of Islam as a violent religion. He later said he regretted the pain his comments evoked and has since stressed interfaith dialogue and reconciliation between Catholics and Muslims.

The pope, whose sermons and speeches will be scrutinized across this tribal kingdom, departs Monday on the next leg of his Holy Land visit, which will take him to Israel and the West Bank.

Jordan is a moderate Islamic country with a British-educated monarch and a fashion-plate queen. The pope's intent is to build religious detente here that will bring Muslims and Christians together to help counter the world's moral and social ills. But the pope is uneasy over a general lack of religious freedom in Arab countries, and many Muslims view the Roman Catholic Church as another Western institution insensitive to how Islam has been stereotyped and vilified since Sept. 11, 2001.

"When you are responsible for 1 billion Catholics and you're speaking to 1 billion Muslims, you should be mature and discreet," Yasser Abu Hilaleh, a Jordan-based writer and commentator, said of the pontiff's 2006 speech. "This is a time of chaos and terrorism, and such comments provoke hostility. They take us backward. They give credence to extremism. Al Qaeda celebrated the pope's statements."

By balancing Jordan, Israel and Palestinian territory in his pilgrimage, the pope is venturing onto incendiary religious and political terrain. Each side will parse and analyze what he does and says at each stop. He's expected to visit the Al Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Will he sympathize with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip? Will he counter accusations that the Vatican was complicit in the Holocaust? Will he mention the two-state solution for a Palestinian homeland when he speaks in the West Bank?

It is a careful dance of adjectives, inflection and nuance. And it rests on the shoulders of a religiously conservative pope with a professorial demeanor who lacks the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II. Benedict has been praised for his intellect, but his ideology and occasionally acerbic statements mixed with cool detachment have infuriated many Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Such passions arise easily in Amman, a city of white hewn-stone buildings and hotels that ripple over hills at the edge of Roman ruins. But Zaki Bani Arshid, whom one might expect to be rallying street protests against the pope, sits in his office at the Islamic Action Front with other things on his mind. He has said publicly that the pope is not welcome in Jordan until he apologizes. He's leaving it at that.

"There's apathy around this visit. Jordanians don't care," he said. "We have economic concerns, the incompetence and weakness of this country to stop corruption -- even the swine flu is preoccupying people more than the pope's visit. He will not be accepted in this part of the world. . . . And I don't expect him to offer any gesture toward reconciliation. He insulted Islam and now he's going to Israel after the Israeli war on Gaza and the rise of the conservative Likud government."

Edward Eid is a Catholic and general director of Greek Orthodox schools in Jordan. Such a role might seem contradictory for him, but in Jordan, where Christians account for less than 4% of a population of about 6 million, interdenominational mingling is a way of life. Eid has a VIP ticket to the pope's Sunday Mass, but he's not going, feeling a closer allegiance to his Muslim countrymen than to the Holy See.

"We Christians paid the price for what the pope said in 2006," he said.

"Before he says anything about the Middle East, he should know how Christians live here."

The Christian population has been shrinking through economic emigration and over the rise of Islamic conservatism. For every church that is built, one mosque, or possibly two, pops up in the same neighborhood. After the pope's comments three years ago, he said, 15 Muslim families threatened to remove their children from Eid's schools; rancor and bruised feelings spread between the Christian village where he grew up and the neighboring Muslim town. Tribes, customs and family connections fixed things, but there remains an air of unease.

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