Reflecting on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Jordan

A visit by a spiritual figure like the pope came at a critical juncture

Benedict. Picture by Massoud Derhally / The National
Powered by automated translation

These days, few events unite people across political and religious spectrums.

In a region increasingly marred by war and sectarianism since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, a visit by a spiritual figure such as Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories came at a critical juncture to promote interfaith dialogue, co-existence and peace.

It was early May and I had just flown in from Lebanon, where I was covering the run-up to the June 2009 legislative elections, which Hezbollah would resoundingly lose to Saad Hariri and his allies.

Among the guests awaiting the pontiff’s arrival under an enormous white tent at Amman’s airport were clergy from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and beyond.

People were exchanging jokes and there was an unusual buzz in the air. Religious figures, dressed in bright red and black religious garb, were jovial.

It was a sight I’d never seen before, a breath of fresh air amid a barrage of negative news to which people in the region had become accustomed – the venom of extremists and their militant agendas.

Iraqi Cardinal Emmanuel Delly on the left and Palestinian Patriarch Michel Sabbah on right. Picture by Massoud Derhally / The National
Iraqi Cardinal Emmanuel Delly on the left and Palestinian Patriarch Michel Sabbah on right. Massoud Derhally / The National

Given the fractious nature of the region, the visit by the pontiff was, as some pundits said then, a step in the right direction towards building common ground and constructive dialogue among the faithful.

The Pope was visiting the region not long after making controversial remarks about Islam at Germany’s University of Regensburg in 2006.

He arrived on the first leg of his trip in Jordan a humbled man to an audience limited to diplomats, politicians, religious scholars and royalty, including King Abdullah and Queen Rania, at Amman airport.

Jordan had welcomed the pontiff’s predecessor John Paul II nine years earlier.

The region was still reeling from a month-long war in Gaza that ended four months earlier. Israel had just sworn in a new right-wing government.

Politically speaking, it wasn’t the best of times for a visit.

But by the same token, many at the time viewed it as a move in the direction towards helping the region to heal, shedding light on the need to promote peace and justice.

For Arab Christians and Palestinians, the visit from the pontiff was also affirmation of their inalienable rights in the Holy Land.

“I come to Jordan as a pilgrim, to venerate holy places that have played such an important part in some of the key events of biblical history,” Pope Benedict said on his arrival in Amman.

“My visit to Jordan is an opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community.”

Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch at the time, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who was among the religious leaders who welcomed the Pope to Amman, said the visit would help to ease tension in the region and was a “call for peace and love between people”.

Michel Sabbah, the former Palestinian Patriarch of Jerusalem who was sharing a joke with Iraqi Cardinal Emmanuel Delly, said he hoped the Pope would "send a message about the injustice of the occupation that has befallen the Palestinian people".

Those sentiments were very much present when Pope Francis visited Palestine in 2014.

Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir on the right. Picture by Massoud Derhally / The National
Former Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir on the right. Massoud Derhally / The National

After the welcoming ceremony at the airport, Pope Benedict visited the Regina Pacis centre before an audience with King Abdullah, the queen and their children.

Dressed in their black uniforms and red capes, Circassian guards who were exiled by the Russian empire in the 19th century and have protected Jordanian kings since the country’s founding were among the honour guard to welcome the pontiff.

On his second day in the country, after a private mass in the morning, Pope Benedict visited Mount Nebo, a hilltop in western Jordan from which Moses saw the Holy Land.

Worshippers, including nuns with the missionary order of the late Mother Teresa and who wore her famous blue and white habit, gathered at the site and the basilica.

The pontiff then visited the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, Jordan’s largest Islamic place of worship, where he met representatives of the Muslim community.

The sight of the gathering was striking – diplomats, academics, priests from various sects and sheikhs sat side by side.

Their contrasting religious garb brought colour to the hall, whose audience was full of anticipation as to what the pontiff would say in his address, given the controversy of his past comments on Islam.

It was a conciliatory address with expressions of regret for having quoted a 14th-century text that wrongly stated the Prophet Mohammed commanded “to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.

“Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history, so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognised as worshippers of God, faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the almighty’s decrees,” the Pope said.

"I thank your Holiness for the 'regret' you expressed after the Regensburg lecture, for the hurt caused by this lecture to Muslims," Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a cousin of Jordan's King Abdullah, said in a speech at the mosque.

“Muslims especially appreciate the clarification by the Vatican that what was said in the lecture did not reflect your Holiness’s own opinion, but rather was simply a citation in an academic lecture.”

The pontiff stood and shook the hand of Prince Ghazi to an applauding audience. It was a symbolic moment towards healing the divide and promoting dialogue. The following day, about 30,000 people belonging to the Latin, Greek Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian and Chaldean churches gathered at the Amman International Stadium to attend a Mass by the pontiff.

Worshippers waved the white and yellow flag of the Vatican as they sang and chanted "Benedictus" in honour of the Pope, who entered the arena in a white Mercedes-Benz.

A similar scene will play out next month in Abu Dhabi, with worshippers this time chanting “Francis”.

This article was originally published on January 30, 2019.