Pope hails courage of Mideast Christians

Pope hails courage of Mideast Christians

Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians at an open-air mass in Jordan on Sunday to hold on to their faith in the Holy Land, a region long devastated by conflict that has forced many to flee.

Hailing the "particular courage" of the Middle East”s dwindling Christian community, the pontiff told around 50,000 worshippers from across the region, including Iraq , to be "faithful to their roots."

"The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East," he said in his homily at an open-air football stadium in Amman.

"Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the Church”s mission in the Holy Land, demands of each of you a particular kind of courage: the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition," he said.

Worshippers from Jordan and neighbouring countries, including Syria and Lebanon , greeted the pope at the stadium on the final day of his trip to Jordan as he arrived in his bullet-proof popemobile.

The papal visit to Jordan, part of a tour that will also take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories, is largely seen as an effort to stem a Christian exodus from the war-ravaged region.

The pontiff circled the football field in his glass-topped vehicle as tens of thousands of people sang in one voice: "Yes to love, yes to peace", waging Jordanian and Vatican flags, and white ribbons in a sign of peace.

The pope will later visit Bethany on the east bank of the River Jordan where Christians believe Jesus was baptised, before travelling on to Israel on Monday to continue a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus Christ .

On Saturday, the 82-year-old pontiff urged inter-faith reconciliation but disappointed Muslim clerics by failing to offer a new apology for remarks seen as targeting Islam.

In an address to Muslim leaders at Amman”s huge Al-Hussein Mosque, he bemoaned the "ideological manipulation of religion" and urged Muslims and Christians to unite as "worshippers of God."

"Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied," the leader of the world”s 1.1 billion Catholics told his audience.

"However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?"

Some clerics were disappointed that his wide-ranging speech made no new apology for a 2006 address in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

The pontiff apologised at the time for the "unfortunate misunderstanding" and on Friday he underlined his "deep respect" for Islam.

Some Muslim leaders wanted him to go further. "We wanted him to clearly apologise," Sheikh Yusef Abu Hussein, mufti of the southern city of Karak.

But Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, King Abdullah II”s advisor on religious affairs, was more conciliatory.

"I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims," said Ghazi, whose country has a Christian minority of about 200,000 out of a six-million population.

Pope Benedict did not remove his shoes at the mosque, as is customary in Muslim shrines, but a spokesman insisted he had not been asked to do so as he used a special walkway.

Pressing the theme of reconciliation during a visit on Saturday to Mount Nebo, where Biblical tradition says God showed Moses the Promised Land, Benedict urged Christians and Jews to bridge their divides.

In Israel , the pope is expected again to focus on building bridges between the faiths.

Israel and the Vatican have clashed over the papal decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop and moves to beatify Pope Pius XII.

The Jewish state reviles Pius for what it perceives as his passive stance during the Holocaust in World War II.

But Israel will also roll out the red carpet as it seeks to rebuild its image following its war on Gaza earlier this year that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The pope will also visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

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