Pope heads for risky Holy Land tour

9th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The 82-year-old head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics left Rome on a special flight for Amman to start the trip to Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Vatican City -- Pope Benedict XVI on Friday started a "pilgrimage" to the Holy Land, facing a daunting array of religious and political challenges on the eight-day trip.

The 82-year-old head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics left Rome on a special flight for Amman to start the trip to Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The pope said on Wednesday that he was going as a "pilgrim of peace".

On the first day, the pope will meet King Abdullah and visit a centre for the handicapped in the Jordanian capital.

He was also expected to raise the issue of Iraq's Christian minority.

During the trip, Benedict will speak to Palestinians at a refugee camp in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and visit a children's hospital.

The pope will also go to Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed the Promised Land to Moses. Benedict's predecessor John Paul II went there in 2000.

While the pope has described his trip as a spiritual pilgrimage, there are also high political and diplomatic stakes.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal, said in a recent interview with CTS News, a Catholic news service: "Each day, each gesture, each encounter and each visit will have a political connotation."

The pope's action in lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop, Richard Williamson, caused international controversy.

Many in Israel have also been angered by the proposed sainthood of pope Pius XII. Jews revile Pius for his passive stance during the Holocaust.

But Israel will work hard to make Benedict's 12th overseas trip as head of the Roman Catholic Church a success.

That would help restore its image after its offensive against the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The German-born pope also wants to send a message of hope to the dwindling number of Christians in the Middle East and overcome lingering Muslim anger over comments in a 2006 speech he made which appeared to link the Prophet Mohammed with violence.

In the 2006 speech, the pope quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of Mohammed as "evil and inhuman".

Benedict later said he was sorry for the reaction and stressed they were not his personal views. But in Jordan, the opposition Islamic Action Front party said the pope was not welcome unless he apologised for the remarks.

"What we want is a change in his policies, so that it is in harmony with the teachings of Jesus about love, peace, justice, equality and condemnations of crimes and Zionist terrorism," party chief Zaki Bani Rsheid told AFP.

The Coalition for Jerusalem, an alliance of Palestinian advocacy groups, on Thursday urged him to denounce what they called atrocities committed against their people by Israel.

"Jerusalem today, and under the eyes and full knowledge of the international community, is witnessing yet another wave of Israel's ethnic cleansing crimes that continue since 1948," they wrote in an open letter.

AFP/Expatica

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