Pope urges Middle East Christians to persevere

63231.jpgBy VICTOR L. SIMPSON – AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI urged Middle East Christians Sunday to persevere in their faith despite hardships threatening their ancient communities, addressing a crowd of 20,000 people who filled a sports stadium where he celebrated the first open-air Mass of his Holy Land pilgrimage.

The pope was welcomed at the stadium in Arabic by the Latin rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, who recalled that Jordan has taken in more than 1 million Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, some 40,000 of them Christians. According to Vatican statistics, Christians are less than 2 percent of Jordan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population.

36987.jpg“The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect the people of the Middle East,” Benedict said, speaking in English at the Mass.

“May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world,” he said.

The pope’s weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage is his first trip as pope to the Middle East — where he has faced sharp criticism by both Muslims and Jews.

Benedict angered many in the Muslim world three years ago when he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith. When he arrived in Jordan on Saturday, Benedict expressed his “deep respect” for Islam and hoped the Catholic Church would be a force for peace.

The pope will also have to tread carefully when he arrives in Israel on Monday for the final four-day leg of his tour, which will also bring him to the Palestinian territories. Earlier this year, Benedict sparked outrage among Jews when he revoked the excommunication of an ultraconservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

Catholics from across the Middle East attended Sunday’s Mass. Many held up flags from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries and applauded the pope’s words and shouted out his name. Forty Iraqi children making their first communion wore long white robes as they waved the Iraqi and Vatican flags.

336655.jpgFor years, the church has been alarmed by the declining presence of Christians in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East, driven out by war and economic hardship.

Many Iraqi Christians were forced to flee the sectarian violence following the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq. Muslim militants targeted Iraqi Christians, many who were killed, raped or kidnapped. Several churches across Iraq were bombed, and clergy were killed.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Palestinian Christians, squeezed between Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land, have been immigrating in high numbers — mainly to the West. In Egypt, which has the biggest Christian community in the region at about 10 percent of the country’s 76 million, Coptic Christians have strained relations with Muslims. Violent clashes have erupted between the two sides in recent years.

In his homily Sunday, Benedict said he hoped Christians would always get the “material and moral assistance” they need. He also paid tribute to Christian women in the region, saying many have “devoted their lives to building peace and fostering harmony.”

Father Raymond Mousalli, an Iraqi priest, said Iraqis of all faiths must sit together and find peace after years of war.

“The holy father speaks here, and his voice is heard in the Middle East especially by Iraqi Christians who are suffering a lot,” Mousalli said.

Peter Samaan, a 15-year-old Iraqi dressed in a white communion robe, said he hoped Benedict could one day travel to Iraq.

“We Christians want to return. We are strangers in this country.” Samaan said, adding that his family fled Iraq to avoid persecution.

Later Sunday, Benedict was scheduled to travel some 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Amman to Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ’s baptism. He will also bless the foundation stones of Latin and Greek Melkite churches.