Pope's Holy Land tour puts spotlight on Muslim ties

6th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

As Pope Benedict XVI's Holy Land tour approaches, his sometimes tempestuous relationship with the Muslim world is being tested.

Amman -- Ties between the Vatican and Muslims are in the spotlight again ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's Holy Land tour, with Islamists demanding he apologise for controversial remarks linking Islam to violence.

Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood and its powerful political arm the Islamic Action Front (IAF) have insisted that the pope, who visits the kingdom from May 8 to 11 ahead of a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, should apologise for his statements "against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed."

"The government should push for an apology from the pope, who should apologise for angering 1.5 billion Muslims in the world," IAF chief Zaki Bani Rsheid told Prime Minister Nader Dahabi in a letter last month. "Otherwise, he is not welcome in Jordan and his visit is rejected."

In a September 2006 speech at a German university, Benedict quoted a mediaeval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

His remarks sparked days of sometimes violent protests in Muslim countries including Jordan, prompting the pontiff to say later he was "deeply sorry" for any offence, and attributing Muslim anger to an "unfortunate misunderstanding."

The German-born head of the Roman Catholic church also met with ambassadors of Muslim countries in the Vatican, which enjoys ties with various Islamic organisations around the world.

In the most stunning gesture, he assumed the posture of Muslim prayer at Istanbul's Blue Mosque, accompanied by a Muslim dignitary, during a visit to Turkey in November 2006.

The most prominent initiative has been the creation of a Catholic-Muslim forum, which held its first meeting in November and issued a joint call for religious freedom, non-violence and a fairer world.

But in Jordan, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu Baker has called on the pontiff to postpone his trip "until certain issues are addressed."

"His visit to the region should reflect coexistence between Muslims and Christians. Provocative positions do not serve this purpose," Abu Baker said on the movement's website.

Despite the Islamists' opposition, the Jordanian government is pulling out all the stops to welcome the pope to the kingdom, where around 200,000 Christians, half of them Catholic, live among the nearly six million population.

"The pope's decision to begin his pilgrimage in Jordan is a sign that the kingdom is an example of religious coexistence," Information Minister Nabil Sharif told AFP.

"This visit is an opportunity to strengthen understanding and dialogue between religious leaders."

Sharif said the pontiff's planned meeting with Muslim leaders at Al-Hussein Mosque in Amman "shows that the pope respects Islam and Muslims."

At the meeting, the pope "will stress that religion is key to serving global peace and justice, particularly in the Middle East," according to the Catholic Church in Jordan.

Political analyst Mustafa Hamarneh said the Islamists' reaction was "normal considering the perception they have about the pope.

"But we must now turn the page and opt for dialogue between religions that would lead to tolerance and acceptance," he added.

The Islamists also strongly criticised the pope's plans to go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, but not to visit Gaza.

"His visit comes after the Zionist entity ravaged the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of children and women, and destroying mosques, hospitals, schools and infrastructure," Abu Baker said. "Is the pope going to visit Gaza to examine how humanity was being violated, or this does not deserve his attention?"

Jordan's independent Fact International weekly on Thursday urged writers, thinkers, intellectuals, journalists, politicians and clerics to write articles on its website to ask the pope "to clarify his stand on Islam and the Palestinian cause."

"Articles should be objective and avoid slander, despite our anger at the pope's insults to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed," the newspaper said on its website.

The paper also demanded an apology from the pope.

"Apologise to Islam and Muslims," reads an ad on the site with a picture of the pope.

A senior Islamic leader said Benedict should do more to restore confidence among Muslims.

"Pope John Paul II visited holy sites in 2000 in Jerusalem without causing controversy," he said. "But Benedict succeeded in angering the Muslims after he took office. It will take more than words to restore confidence."

Randa Habib/AFP/Expatica

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