Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Amman, Jordan yesterday to start his first papal visit to the Middle East. His tour includes 4-days here in Jordan and 4-days in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
There has been a bit of buzz around here the past week or so. The attitude is very positive. Christians of all denominations seem to welcome the pope’s visit warmly and see it as a boon for Christianity in this Muslim nation (Christians only make up 3% of the 5.8 million people). Muslim friends have also been positive (other than a few speculations about traffic problems), and remembered fondly the visit of John Paul II 9 years ago.
I’m not sure who initiated this trip but papers here indicate that HM King Abdullah invited the Pope. Jordan has long been a stronghold of peace and (comparative) religious tolerance in the region and it is not surprising that this is one of the first Middle Eastern countries for the Pope to visit. I can think of three strategic purposes for the invitation from HM the king.
- A reflection of HM King Abdullah’s stance on Islam in the contemporary world and esp. it’s relationship to Christianity and Judaism. In 2004 HM King Abdullah comissioned a number of Islamic Scholars to draft what would later become known as the “Amman Message.” This appears to be a well thought out explanation of what some inthe West would decribe as “moderate” Islam. A year later came the “Amman Interfaith Message” aimed at “establishing full acceptance and good will between [the three monotheistic religions].”
- To encourage the country’s (rumored to be) shrinking Christian population. Although they only represent 3% of the population Christians are guaranteed 9% of parliamentary seats. This rubs some the wrong way, but there is no doubt that Christians have (and continue) to play an important role in Jordanian society. As in other parts of the Muslim world wealthier and more educated Christians are leaving for the West. Perhaps this visit fromthe Pope will be beneficial in encouraging positive Muslim-Christian relations in the kingdom and remind those that are here of HM King Abdullah’s benevlonce towards them.
- Encouraging Christian pilgramage/tourism to Jordan. There are many important Biblical sites in Jordan – the most significant of which is the Bethany Beyond the Jordan – speculated baptism site of Jesus. There is excellent archaeological evidence for this being the place where John the Baptist was baptizing long ago. 25% of the countries tourists apparently pass through here, but Jordan would like to see more awareness of the rich Biblical history reflected in this and other sites (Mount Nebo, Pella, Madaba, Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, etc.) and increased tourist traffic at the Baptism site and throughout the Kingdom.
Of course, there have been a few detractors, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. They called for another public apology from the Pope re. his infamous 2006 speech which included a quote from a Medieval scholar that did not reflect favorably on Islam or their prophet, Muhammad. The Vatican’s official stance was that the pope has already publicly stated long ago that he was sorry for the use of the quote an that it did not reflect his personal views on Islam. While divisive at the time the speech and it’s aftermath led directly to the formation of the “Common Word between Us and You” initiative, which was an attempt by Christian leaders to reach out to Muslim leaders and bridge the gap of differences by focusing on some of the commonalities between the religions (namely loving God and loving neighbor). Despite disappointment on the part of some about the lack of a new apology,BBC reports that:
…the top religious adviser to Jordan’s king thanked the Pope on Saturday for expressing regret for the speech.”I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims,” Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed told the Pope.”We realise that the visit [to Jordan] comes as a goodwill gesture and a sign of mutual respect between Muslims and Christians.
I am intrigued about the ongoing reaction to the Pope’s visit. He has already made the rounds of some important sites – Mt. Nebo (where Moses died), Madaba (a largely Christian (Catholic/Orthodox) town near Amman, and Jordan’s largest mosque where he made a speech encouraging peace, cooperation, and dialogue between Islam and Christianity and eschewed religiously motivated violence on both sides. As I noted reception here has been largely positive among Muslims and local Christians.
In the negative reaction category, there are of course a few Muslim who have spoke out as I mentioned before. But suprising to me was the ambivalence about the Pope’s visit on the part of Wetern (ex-pat) Christians. Most of the ex-pats I know who are Christians are some flavor of Protestant. Many of their reactions could be summed up by saying, “Oh? The Pope? Ok, that’s nice.” I’m not sure what fuels this. I mean, ok, I’m not Catholic but I think the Pope is a pretty important and influential world/religious leader. His presence here in this predominately Muslim country is significant for the Christians here and perhaps has some implications for future Muslim-Christian dialogue and relationship. Not to mention the Mid-East peace process as he visits both Israel and Palestine after his Jordan stop. Ok, so he’s not the leader of my particular Christian tradition and he’s just a man like anyone else – but let’s have a little gravitas and sense of history people!
One last cool result of the Pope’s visit. HM Queen Rania started a Tweet (Twitter feed for the uninitiated – or a kind of a one-line at a time electronic diary for the super-uninitiated) to give a running update on the pope’s visit. It’s a rare personal insight into the (semi)random thoughts of a world leader, “Special day here in Amman; not everyday pope drop s by 4 a visit ” or “Just listened to Pope’s speech. Our region so needs a message of Peace.” She also mentions the movie she and the King were watching the night before the Pope arrived (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – apparently His Majesty muttered “chickflick” under his breath at the suggestion), her failed attempt to get her 4-year old to don a suit, and posts a pic of HM King Abdullah and one of their son’s rolling out for an afternoon motorcycle ride. I hope she continues to Tweet after the Pope leaves. HM Queen Rania is already famous for her YouTube videos and seems to be a royal figure very much in tune with how to communicate in this electronic era.
This and other of HM Queen Rania’s pics can be found here.
Well, I need to wrap this up soon. Sorry for the typos and if there are any bad links. Had to type this quickly as I need to go to bed soon. Pope Benedict is giving an open mass at the largest sports stadium tomorrow. I’m gonna go check it out. The gates open at 4 AM and close at 8 AM. Mass starts at 10 AM. Should be a very, very intriguing morning. Oh, btw for security reasons you can’t bring sharp objects, food, or a cell phone. I’m joining a couple of friends and we’re going to try and get there by 6 AM. It’s 11 PM – better go. I’ll hopefully get another update posted late tomorrow.