Page last updated at 19:43 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 20:43 UK

Jordanian hopes high for papal visit

By Robert Pigott
BBC News religious affairs correspondent

Pope wears Jordanian Keffeyeh
Jordan hopes the Pope's visit will lead to more Christians visiting the country

Pope Benedict XVI has stressed that his eight-day trip to the Middle East should be regarded as a pilgrimage, and that he does not intend to get embroiled in the highly-charged politics of the region.

The Pope will go to sites important to Christians, Muslims and Jews, in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank.

But whatever the Pope's intentions, in each place his hosts will have practical ambitions for his visit.

Jordan is completely open about one of its principal aims for this, the first visit by a pope for nine years.

It wants a greater share of the huge international market in Christian tourism and more visits by some of the 150 million Christians who travel as pilgrims each year.

The Pope's visit is expected to generate more than $50m (£33m) for Israel, and trips by Christians there have increased by almost a fifth since Pope John Paul's visit in 2000.

Biblical heritage

But Jordan lags far behind, and believes its Biblical heritage is being overlooked by Christian tourists.

People flock to Jordan's pre-Christian stone-carved city of Petra, but relatively few of them stay on to make a holiday in the country.

Of the 800,000 people who travel to Petra every year, it is estimated that more than a third of them leave the country the same evening.

The Dead Sea is another Jordanian attraction.

Petra, Jordan
Petra is one of Jordan's biggest tourist attractions

Here on the lowest point on Earth - more than 400 metres below sea level - what the Bible calls the Salt Sea buoys people up like corks.

It is far enough down for much of the harmful ultra-violet rays to be filtered out of sunlight, and for there to be 7% more oxygen in the air.

But among the tourists coating each other in sticky Dead Sea mud, relatively few associate Jordan with the places mentioned in the Bible.

David Symes, of the Jordan Tourism Board, says that ignorance is largely the result of Jordan's status as a new country.

"People don't realise that the sites in Jordan were actually mentioned in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testament," he said. "In the Old Testament we are talking about the lands of Moab and Edom."

Jordan is counting on the Pope's visit to Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan on the Plain of Moab to alert Christians to one of its most important sites.

The concentrated remains of early churches and baptism pools in a steamy jungle of Tamarisk trees near the Jordan River persuaded the Vatican to declare this to be the authentic site of Jesus's baptism, rejecting a rival on the Israeli bank.

Pilgrimage sites

Fr Nabil Hadad, of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church, is helping to arrange the Pope's visit to Jordan. He saw how the visit of Pope John Paul II alerted Christians to pilgrimage sites in the Middle East in 2000.

"What we want is for Christians to come here to perform this pilgrimage, to see this as their Mecca for Christianity, and to have this connection, direct connection, with the land, with the environment, with the history, and with the faith, right here where it happened," he said.

One place where a Biblical story comes alive is Um Qais, the place in the far north of Jordan once known as Gadara.

This is the site of the miracle of the Gadarene swine, when Jesus met a man who ran out of tombs in the town evidently possessed by unclean spirits.

Poster pf Pope in Jerusalem
The Pope will also visit Jerusalem when he travels to Israel and the West Bank

Jesus cast the spirits out of the man and into a herd of pigs, which then ran over a cliff into the sea and drowned.

Roman era tombs are visible on the approach to the old town, and the Sea of Galilee lies at a distance below its walls.

Pope Benedict is also going to Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses stood to look out over the Plain of Moab and Israel beyond.

It is only the third visit by a head of the Roman Catholic Church to the Jewish state, and whatever his own intentions for the trip, the Pope faces pressure to address political issues.

Christian leaders have called on him to support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bishop Munib Younan, told a conference in Jerusalem that the Pope should publicly oppose the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and laws that separate Palestinian families.

However, Pope Benedict faces pressure to repair his already fragile relations with Jews as well.

Letters of criticism

As he travelled to the Middle East, a group of 38 Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders published letters to the Pope, criticising his handling of relations with Judaism.

They claimed that under his leadership, the Roman Catholic Church had become "more ambiguous" about Christian-Jewish relations and suggested that his trip represented "a last chance" to patch them up.

In his speech in Amman, the Pope carefully avoided politics, expressing his "deep respect" for Islam and calling for dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews for the sake of peace.

He also side-stepped politics as he answered questions from reporters on the flight from Rome to Jordan. He insisted that "we are not a political power but a spiritual force".

Pope Benedict told the journalists that it was a spiritual force capable of contributing to the peace process, but each community will want to harness that force for its own more ambitious ends.

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