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Pope Prepares for Middle East Visit

VOA, May 7, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI is preparing for a week-long visit to the Middle East that will take him to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Many Vatican observers see this trip as the most challenging foreign visit by Pope Benedict to date, due to past relations with Jews and Muslims. But there are hopes this visit will help improve relations with the other religions.

The first leg of the pope's Middle East tour will take him to Jordan, where Catholics are less than two percent of the population. During three days there he will visit sites of religious significance: Bethany-Beyond the Jordan and Mount Nebo.

Pope hopes to give Christians new hope

Vatican observer Father Thomas Williams says the pope will attempt to give Christians living in the Middle East new hope. Many have been leaving the region, driven by a difficult economic and political climate.

"One of his main goals there is to bolster Christians in the Middle East and give them encouragement to stay there, to hold firm," Father Williams said.

The pope has made a visit to the Middle East one of the early priorities of his papacy.

Peace message is important to region

Father Rifat Bader, who is the Roman Catholic Church's spokesman in Amman, says the pope says he is coming as a pilgrim of peace. Father Bader says any voice that calls for peace and justice should be encouraged and listened to.

"We hope that the Holy Father will gather the people because the main title for his visit is to bring unity and peace for the Middle East and for the world. We believe that unity has many aspects, unity between the Christians, unity between the religions and unity between the states," he said.

Pope Benedict is scheduled to meet with Muslim religious leaders while he is in Amman. Some have not forgotten how they were insulted by the pope's remarks in a speech he gave in Germany in 2006 about the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

Pontiff to visit mosque

Vatican observer Father Thomas Williams says the pope will be visiting Amman's largest mosque, the King Hussein Mosque.

"It is the first time a pope has visited a mosque in Jordan, the second time that Benedict himself has visited a mosque after the Blue Mosque. And this is hugely important because Jordan is setting itself up as the seat of Christian-Muslim relations," he said. "So this is a very, very important move that Benedict is making in hopes that this will be a continued dialogue," said Father Williams.

Pope Benedict is also expected to celebrate mass in a soccer stadium Sunday in Amman, before he leaves for Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is due back at the Vatican on May 15.

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