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Pope begins his first Middle East trip

Pope Benedict XVI is surrounded by parishioners after a prayer service Friday in Amman, Jordan.

Pope Benedict XVI is surrounded by parishioners after a prayer service Friday in Amman, Jordan.

AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Benedict XVI began his first trip to the Middle East on Friday, expressing his “deep respect” for Islam and hopes that the Catholic Church would be a force for peace in the region as he trod carefully following past missteps with Muslims and Jews.

The pope was given a red-carpet welcome at the airport by Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania and praised the moderate Arab country as a leader in efforts to promote peace and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. An honor guard wearing traditional red- and white-checkered headscarfs played bagpipes and waved Jordanian and Vatican flags.

The trip to the Holy Land is the first for Benedict, who will travel on Monday for a much-anticipated four days in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Despite the lavish welcome ceremony, the pope has faced sharp criticism in the Middle East.

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.”

Earlier this year, he sparked outrage among Jews when he revoked the excommunication of an ultraconservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

“My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by his majesty the king in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam,” Benedict said shortly after landing in Jordan, a mostly desert country where Moses is said to have viewed the Promised Land.

Later at a Catholic center for the handicapped, he said his only agenda was to bring hope and prayers “for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East.”

But past comments continue to fuel criticism by some Muslims, even though the pope said he was sorry and that the quotes did not reflect his personal views.

Jordan’s hard-line Muslim Brotherhood said before the pope’s arrival that its members would boycott his visit because he did not issue a public apology as they demanded. Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr said the absence of a public apology meant “obstacles and boundaries will remain and will overshadow any possible understanding between the pope and the Muslim world.”

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