A Catholic nun prays inside St John the Baptist Catholic church, where according to the Bible John the Baptist was detained in the town of Madaba, southwest of the Jordanian capital Amman on May 23, 2014
A Catholic nun prays inside St John the Baptist Catholic church, where according to the Bible John the Baptist was detained in the town of Madaba, southwest of the Jordanian capital Amman on May 23, 2014 © Patrick Baz - AFP
A Catholic nun prays inside St John the Baptist Catholic church, where according to the Bible John the Baptist was detained in the town of Madaba, southwest of the Jordanian capital Amman on May 23, 2014
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Ella Ide and Rania Sanjar, AFP
Last updated: May 24, 2014

Jordan Christians prepare for pope, hope for defender in Middle East

From Mount Nebo, with its views of the Holy Land, to sandstone churches in dusty villages, Jordan's Christians are preparing for a papal visit they hope will boost their standing in the Middle East.

Pope Francis arrives in Amman on Saturday for the first leg of a three-day trip which will take him to the Palestinian Territories and Jerusalem with a message of interreligious dialogue and peace for the troubled region.

While Christians in neighbouring countries have been increasingly persecuted following the Arab Spring uprisings, Christian communities in Jordan appear to be thriving, their numbers boosted by an influx of foreign workers and refugees.

"We Christians have been in this region a long time, the early Christians lived here. We have a right to stay, the solution is not immigration," engineer Rami Haddad, 25, said as he stood in the shade on a rocky outcrop on Mount Nebo.

The 77-year-old pontiff is expected to discuss the issue of protection for Christians in the region with King Abdullah II, who has frequently spoken to defend churchgoers from the threat of radical Islamists.

According to Jordan's Catholic Centre for Studies and Media, some two million Christians have left the Middle East over the past decade.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the outbreak of Syria's bloody civil war in 2011 saw many others seek shelter in Jordan, which hosts some 600,000 displaced people, according to the UN refugee agency.

But up on the hilly streets of Madaba, an early Christian settlement venerated as the site where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded, petite nun Rachel Makhamry grins with excitement when she talks of Francis's visit.

She will take the bus along with dozens of others from her local church to attend a mass held by Francis in the capital city Amman's sports stadium, before the pontiff travels to meet Syrian refugees at the River Jordan.

Makhamry said she hopes "all the world leaders, Arab and non-Arab" will listen to the pope's message of peace and bring "peace of mind, religious freedom, freedom of behaviour, in addition to political and social freedom."

- Peaceful coexistence -

Posters of Francis shaking hands with King Abdullah II are pasted on walls near local churches and Christians lugging vegetables home from the market speak not only of their hope for peace in the Arab world but also of their pride in their multi-faith communities.

Churchgoer Jamal Haddad, 28, said he hopes Francis's visit will hold up majority-Muslim Jordan as an example of a Middle Eastern country where religions manage to coexist peacefully.

"Many Christians wish to live in Jordan, many Christian refugees run from religious persecution to here. Here we have our freedom," he said.

The country's good interreligious relations, according to Rifat Badit, head of the Catholic Centre for Studies and Media, are due in part to Jordan's constitution, which he says promotes diplomatic and economic ties between the various faith communities.

In the town of Fuheis near Amman, where Greek Orthodox believers live alongside Catholics and Muslims, families gathering for mass said the trip would also help bring together bickering Christian factions.

Retired 65-year-old Michel Hattar said the pontiff, renowned for his charm and people's touch, would "empower Christians and improve their relationships with one another."

In a symbolic step for relations between the various branches of Christianity, on the third day of his trip Francis will meet in Jerusalem with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I -- a leading figure in the Eastern Orthodox church.

Along with representatives from the main Christian denominations, they will hold a joint prayer as a first step to overcoming their differences in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated as the site where Jesus was buried and resurrected.

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