Pope fails to apologise to Muslims

AMMAN: Pope Benedict XVI is to hold a public outdoor mass at a stadium in Jordan's capital on Sunday and visit Bethany on the east bank of the River Jordan where Christians believe Jesus was baptised.

The pontiff, who arrived in Jordan on Friday for his first papal visit to an Arab state, is to travel on to Israel on Monday as he follows his Holy Land pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

On Saturday, he urged inter-faith reconciliation but disappointed Muslim clerics by failing to offer a new apology for remarks seen as targeting Islam.

In a keynote address to Muslim leaders in Amman's huge Al-Hussein Mosque, he bemoaned the "ideological manipulation of religion" and urged Muslims and Christians to unite as "worshippers of God."

"Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied," the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics told his audience.

"However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?"

Some clerics were disappointed however that his wide-ranging speech made no new apology for a 2006 address in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

The pontiff apologised at the time for the "unfortunate misunderstanding."

Some Muslim leaders wanted him to go further this time. "We wanted him to clearly apologise," Sheikh Yusef Abu Hussein, mufti of the southern city of Karak.

But Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, Jordanian King Abdullah II's advisor on religious affairs who hosted the pontiff during his visit to the mosque, was more conciliatory.

"I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims," said Ghazi, whose country has a Christian minority of about 200,000 out of a six-million population.

Pope Benedict did not remove his shoes during his address at the mosque, as is customary in Muslim shrines, but a spokesman insisted he had not been asked to do so as he used a special walkway.

On his arrival in Amman on Friday at the start of his eight-day Holy Land tour that will also take him to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Benedict underlined his "deep respect" for Islam.

Pressing the theme of reconciliation during a visit on Saturday to Mount Nebo, where Biblical tradition says God showed Moses the Promised Land, Benedict urged Christians and Jews to bridge their divides.

"The ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the holy places also reminds us of the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people," Benedict said.

Also in his speech at the Amman mosque, Benedict urged the world to make every effort to protect the beleaguered Christian minority in war-battered Iraq.

"I urge diplomats and the international community they represent, together with local political and religious leaders, to do everything possible to ensure the ancient Christian community of that noble land its fundamental right to peaceful coexistence with their fellow citizens," he said.

On Monday, the pope will begin the second stage of his trip by flying to Israel where he is also expected again to focus on building bridges between the faiths.

Israel and the Vatican have clashed in recent months over the papal decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson of Britain, and over moves to beatify Pope Pius XII.

The Jewish state reviles Pius for what it perceives as his passive stance during the Holocaust in World War II.

But Israel will also roll out the red carpet as it seeks to rebuild its image following its war against the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza earlier this year that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

During his trip he will visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.