Signs of Hope
Right at the start of his pilgrimage through Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Pope Benedict XVI warned against misusing religion for political ends.
On the second day of his visit, he held a speech before political and religious dignitaries at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman in which he described religion as a "force for good" that must not be used as a tool for sowing discord and violence in the world. King Abdallah in return welcomed the Pope's visit to the "heartland of Christian and Muslim faith".
Many commentators in the Arab world view Benedict XVI's words as an expression of good will and the intention to improve relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, strained not least by the Pope's speech in Regensburg in September 2006.
At the time the Pope had quoted a criticism of Islam by Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, insulting and angering millions of Muslims.
Although he did not refer directly to this incident while in Amman, Benedict's call for greater respect both for the values shared by Islam and Christianity as well as for the differences between the two faiths was widely understood as an attempt to build new bridges in a region dominated by conflicts and mistrust.
Protests from the Islamic side
Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, King Abdallah's supreme advisor in religious issues, admittedly did not fail to recall the sore point. In his address, also held at the King Hussein Mosque, he thanked the Pope for "showing regret about the 2006 speech with which he had hurt the feelings of the Muslims".
And while Prince Ghazi, who likewise dealt at length with interreligious problems, made only this brief comment on the incident, the politically powerful Muslim Brotherhood demanded an explicit apology from Benedict XVI for his 2006 remarks.
The Islamists in Jordan protested against the Pope's visit, receiving ammunition from the influential Islamic television preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi. In his Friday sermon in Dauha last week, al-Qaradawi highlighted before a large audience that the Pope had disparaged Islam and the prophets in his Regensburg talk:
"He described Islam as a religion of violence and said that the Prophet Mohammed had made no contribution to the development of humanity."
Al-Qaradawi, who advises the Arab television station al-Jazira in religious matters, expressed his displeasure that the Pope "did not even retract this arbitrary remark when, in the name of the International Islamic Council of Religious Scholars, we requested a correction and an apology".
He referred to the fact that the Council of Religious Scholars had then broken off relations with the Vatican and only intended to resume the dialogue when the demands made at that time had been met.
It was clear from the outset what these reactions expressed: Benedict XVI would have to face up to difficult conditions during his pilgrimage following the path of Christ.
Although the Pope's visit to Jordan was a major success in both political and social terms, and tens of thousands of people – both Christians and Muslims – attended his speeches and sermons, it will not be possible until the end of the week to take stock of the outcome of his trip. The Pope's encounter with the Israelis and Palestinians is likely to be the biggest challenge on his itinerary.
A few days before the venerable guest arrived, Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan told the Catholic News Service that the Pope's visit was a sign of hope for the Arabs and at the same time could serve to deepen understanding for the interreligious dialogue.
The incident "should not be seen as a passing, calming serene visit that is transient or just another visit to the region, but should rather focus in our minds that we can revive the heritage of trust and good faith".
Reason for confidence?
Can we then expect this visit to produce better mutual understanding between Arabs and Muslims on the one hand and the Western world on the other? After years of bloody conflict following the attacks of 11 September 2001, the prophets of doom invoking a "clash of cultures" really do seem to have grown quieter of late, while the desire for cultural and religious dialogue is once again being plainly expressed.
In the Arab press numerous authors and analysts voiced the hope that the Pope's journey through the deeply torn region offered the prospect for a solution that could bring comprehensive and lasting peace.
Where the point of departure and heart of such a solution might lay was made perfectly clear by King Abdallah as he bid farewell to the high-ranking guest before his flight to Jerusalem. Justice must become a reality, particularly for those suffering "under occupation, deprivation and disrespect".
And despite the pronounced apolitical nature of the Pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his visit to Jordan ended on a blatantly political note when Abdallah expressed his hope for a treaty that would give "the Palestinians their right to freedom and a sovereign state, and the Israelis acceptance and the necessary security".
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Qantara.de 2009
Jordanian writer Fakhri Saleh works as editor of the daily paper "Ad-Dustour". He is also head of the Jordanian Society of Literary Critics. In 1997 he received the Palestinian Literary Award and in 2003 the Ghalib Halasa Award for his cultural contribution to criticism and for his translations of English books into Arabic.