Pope urges Mideast Christians to keep the faith

 Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday hailed the courage of Holy Land Christians and urged them to work to counter violence in a region long devastated by conflict that has forced many thousands to flee.

"In the Middle East, marked by tragic suffering, by years of violence and unresolved tensions, Christians are called to offer their contribution ... of reconciliation and peace through forgiveness and generosity," the pontiff said on the banks of the River Jordan.

"Promote dialogue and understanding in civil society, especially when claiming your legitimate rights," he said near Bethany, where he laid the foundation stones for two new churches at the site tradition holds John the Baptist baptised his cousin Jesus.

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass at a football stadium in Amman

Earlier in the day, an estimated 30,000 worshippers from the Middle East's dwindling Christian community gathered in an Amman football stadium where the pope gave an open-air mass on the third day of his pilgrimage following in the footsteps of Jesus.

"The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East," he said.

"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."

The eight-day papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land that will also take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories, is seen as an effort to stem a Christian exodus from the war-ravaged region, the cradle of Christianity where their numbers have dropped to about 12 million.

The 82-year-old pope also called for more respect for women, saying society owed them for their courageous efforts to build peace.

"Sadly this God-given dignity and role of women has not always been sufficiently understood and esteemed," he said.

The Vatican said that 30,000 worshippers from Jordan, and neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Syria, packed the stadium where the pope arrived in his bullet-proof popemobile.

Benedict, who has described his trip as a mission of peace and unity, triggered cheers and applause from the faithful when he responded in Arabic saying "Assalamou Lakoum" or peace to you.

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

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

Addressing Muslim leaders at Amman's Al-Hussein Mosque, he bemoaned the "ideological manipulation of religion" which he said trigger tensions and violence and urged Muslims and Christians to unite as "worshippers of God."

But some Muslim leaders wanted the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics to go further and issue a new apology for quoting in 2006 a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

The pope apologised at the time for the "unfortunate misunderstanding."

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 -- whose trip follows a ground-breaking pilgrimage in 2000 by his late predecessor John Paul II -- is due to press for inter-faith dialogue.

Israel has condemned the papal decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop and moves to beatify Pope Pius XII -- reviled for what Israel perceives as his passive stance during the Holocaust.

But Israel will nevertheless be rolling 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.

Source AFP

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