Pope mobbed on pilgrimage

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The Independent Online

More than 40,000 cheering Catholics packed a sports stadium Tuesday for a Mass led by Pope John Paul II, who made a plea for stronger ties among the diverse faiths of the Middle East.

The frail pope has received a warm reception from Jordan's small Christian community, as well as the country's Muslim leadership. However, the pontiff heads Tuesday afternoon to neighboring Israel, where long-running religious and political feuds could introduce an element of controversy to John Paul's Holy Land pilgrimage.

At the Amman International Stadium, many in the crowd wore T-shirts that featured both the pope and King Abdullah II, and read, "Jordan welcomes John Paul II." Muslim members of the royal family, including the king's mother, were among those present.

The pontiff, dressed in a red robe, called for "the strengthening of the bond ... between the Christians and the other great religions which flourish here."

"May the resources of the church ... set unity and love as their supreme goal," said the pope, who spoke slowly and coughed at several points during his remarks. "There is no more effective way to be involved ... in the work of justice, reconciliation and peace."

The crowd chanted, "Viva, Papa," and waved yellow flags and candles, the color of the Vatican.

Many of the faithful came from neighboring Middle Eastern states, including Iraq, where the pope had hoped to visit holy sites, but ultimately dropped the trip.

"I haven't slept for four days," said Odai Shaamoun, a 30-year-old waiter who traveled from Iraq's capital Baghdad to see the pope. "We hope he will pray for (Iraqis) and call for the lifting of sanctions for the sake of our children and our elderly."

Iraq has been under international sanctions for nearly a decade following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the pope has expressed sympathy for the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.

The pope, who arrived in Jordan on Monday, has sought to make his visit a spiritual celebration. But he has acknowledged the region's political strife.

"In this area of the world, there are grave and urgent issues of justice, of the rights of peoples and nations which have to be resolved," the pope said Monday. "No matter how difficult, no matter how long, the process of seeking peace must continue."

John Paul is "not coming with a political proposal, but to create a climate so that a political resolution can be accepted by all sides," papal spokesman Joaquin Navaro-Valls told reporters Tuesday.

The pope could get his first taste of the religious and political disputes Tuesday.

At his last stop in Jordan, the pope will visit the east bank of the Jordan River, the site of Jesus' baptism, according to some religious scholars and archaeologists.

The Jordanian claim has sparked a friendly cross-border rivalry with Israel, which has long maintained that Jesus was baptized on the west bank, now under Israeli military control.

In the interest of fair play, John Paul will be traveling to the Israeli site later in the week. The Vatican has not taken a position on either side's claim, and the dispute may have as much to do with tourism revenue as religious scholarship.

When the pontiff arrives in Israel, he will be welcomed by the country's president and prime minister - a sharp contrast to the last papal visit in 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Israeli leaders pointedly kept their distance. The Vatican and Israel did not formally establish relations until seven years ago.

While the Jordanian events have been relatively low-key, Israel is planning its biggest security operation ever, and some of the country's fractious groups see the trip as a forum to press their claims for control of Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, police on Monday ordered Palestinians to remove a huge balloon tethered to Orient House, the PLO headquarters in the eastern part of the city.

"Jerusalem, the eternal Palestinian capital, welcomes His Holiness, the Pope," read the balloon.

A day earlier, police said suspected right-wing Jewish extremists vandalized the helipad where the papal helicopter is to land, spray-painting swastikas and slogans such as "Pope Out."

Mainstream Jewish leaders welcome the pope's visit and his statements promoting reconciliation among faiths, but they would like him to go further in acknowledging the church's past discrimination against Jews and its public silence during the Holocaust.