Saturday, May 9, 2009

AMMAN, Jordan | Pope Benedict XVI began his first trip to the Middle East on Friday, expressing his “deep respect” for Islam and his hope that the Catholic Church would be a force for peace in the region as he treaded carefully after past missteps with Muslims and Jews.

The pope was given a red carpet welcome at the airport by Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania and praised the moderate Arab country as a leader in efforts to promote peace and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. An honor guard wearing traditional red- and white-checkered head scarves played bagpipes and waved Jordanian and Vatican flags.

The trip to the Holy Land is the first for the German-born pontiff, who will travel Monday for a much-anticipated four days in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Despite the lavish welcome ceremony, the pope has faced sharp criticism in the Middle East - by both Muslims and Jews.

Benedict angered many in the Muslim world three years ago when he quoted a medieval text that characterized some of prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.”

Earlier this year, he sparked outrage among Jews when he lifted the excommunication of an ultraconservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

“My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by his majesty the king in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam,” Benedict said shortly after landing in Jordan, a mostly desert country where Moses is said to have viewed the Promised Land.

He said Jordan was in the forefront of efforts to promote peace and interreligious dialogue and to “curb extremism.”

Later at a Catholic center for the handicapped, the pope said his only agenda was to bring hope and prayers “for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East.”

But his past comments continue to spur criticism by some Muslims, even though the pope said he was sorry and that the quotes did not reflect his personal views.

Jordan’s hard-line Muslim Brotherhood said before the pope’s arrival that its members would boycott his visit because he did not issue a public apology as they demanded. Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr said the absence of a public apology meant “obstacles and boundaries will remain and will overshadow any possible understanding between the pope and the Muslim world.”

Before landing in Amman, Benedict expressed hope his visit and the power of the Catholic Church would help further peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We are not a political power but a spiritual power that can contribute,” Benedict told reporters aboard his plane. The traditional press conference was scaled down, with the Vatican spokesman asking the questions based on previously submitted questions from reporters. In the past, some of his answers have stirred controversy, but he appeared to avoid that.

During his three-day stay in Jordan, Benedict is scheduled to meet with Muslim religious leaders at Amman’s largest mosque - his second visit to a Muslim place of worship since becoming pope in 2005. He prayed in Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque, a gesture that helped calm the outcry over his remarks about Muhammad.

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