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Pope visits Christ 'baptism site'

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Crowds greet the Pope as he visits the reputed site of Jesus' baptism

Pope Benedict XVI has visited the reputed site of the baptism of Jesus Christ in Jordan, on the third day of his Middle East tour.

The Pope arrived in a motorcade of electric vehicles to the site at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.

Earlier, the Pope held Mass for thousands of people at a football stadium in the Jordanian capital Amman.

Jordan's 200,000 Roman Catholics, and other Christians, were given a special holiday to enable them to attend.

The Pope was accompanied to what is believed to be the baptismal site by King Abdullah of Jordan and his wife Queen Rania. He blessed the cornerstones of two churches on the site.

'Courage of conviction'

But the BBC's David Willey, travelling with the Pope, said the 20,000-seat stadium was not completely full.

Our correspondent says the situation for the dwindling Catholic minority in the Middle East has worsened considerably since the last Papal visit to Jordan nine years ago.

David Willey
David Willey
BBC News, Jerusalem

Sunday was a visual lesson in Middle East Geopolitics: the small and dwindling Arab Christian community gathered round their Pope in the Amman football stadium; the transition to ancient historic Jerusalem from dusty modern Amman, a new sprawling Islamic megacity, through a biblical desert landscape.

And then the Allenby Bridge and the River Jordan border crossing with Israel and the steep climb up to Jerusalem where you see for the first time Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories nosing their way into the desert.

He says many Catholic families have emigrated.

During Mass, the Pope urged the congregation not to forget the "great dignity" that comes from their Christian heritage.

"Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the Church's mission in the Holy Land, demands of each of you a particular kind of courage," he said.

"The courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition."

The pontiff is also due to visit Israel and the West Bank on his eight-day tour.

Inter-faith controversies

So far, he has stressed the importance of Muslim and Christian communities working together.

POPE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Monday Arrives in Israel, meets President Shimon Peres
Tuesday Visits Western Wall, meets Chief Rabbis
Wednesday Visits Bethlehem, visits refugees, meets Mahmoud Abbas
Thursday Mass in Nazareth, talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, meets Franciscans
Friday Meets Orthodox Christian leaders, departs

In a speech on Saturday at the King Hussein mosque in Amman, he warned against the "ideological manipulation" of religion for political ends, which he said could act as a "catalyst for tension and division".

The Pope's visit is aimed at encouraging the minority Christian community in the Middle East, and creating a better dialogue with Muslims and Jews.

Pope Benedict upset Muslims in 2006 with a speech in which he quoted a medieval scholar who was critical of the Prophet Muhammad.

The pontiff also upset some Jews recently by rescinding the ex-communication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.



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