9 May 2009

Pope arrives in Jordan to start first Mideast visit

10:33 am on 9 May 2009

Pope Benedict began a trip to the Middle East on Friday by expressing "deep respect" for Islam and saying the Catholic Church would do everything it could to help the region's stalled peace process.

Starting the first leg of a trip that will include Israel and the Palestinian territories, he also called for a three-way dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews to help peace.

"Certainly I will try to make a contribution to peace, not as an individual but in the name of the Catholic Church, of the Holy See," he told reporters on the plane taking him to Jordan.

"We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process," he said.

The Holy See has full diplomatic relations with most of the countries in the Middle East and a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

The 82-year-old pope appeared careful to avoid overtly politically tinged statements at the start of his first visit to the region, stressing instead the potential of religion to resolve conflicts.

Pope Benedict's trip is taking place in the long shadow of his Regensburg speech in 2006, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying Islam was violent and irrational.

The speech still rankles in the Islamic world and Jordanian Islamist leaders have denounced the visit, saying he should apologise for it first.

The pope seemed to be at pains to put the speech, which he says was misinterpreted, behind him.

"My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community," Pope Benedict said in his arrival address, praising King Abdullah for his work in "promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam".