AMMAN, May 9 – Pope Benedict XVI was to meet Muslim leaders in Jordan a day after stressing his "deep respect" for Islam as he sought to strengthen bridges between the faiths on his first trip to the Holy Land as pontiff.
After following in the footsteps of John Paul II in 2000 to Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed the Promised Land to Moses, the 82-year-old head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics was to meet Muslim leaders in Amman.
On arrival in the kingdom on Friday on his first trip to an Arab nation, the pope said he came "as a pilgrim, to venerate holy places that have played such an important part in some of the key events of Biblical history."
But he also told journalists that inter-faith dialogue was "very important for peace," adding: The Church "is not a political force but a spiritual force which can contribute to the progress of the peace process" in the Middle East.
As he began his tour the pope said it gave him "a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community," and he also called religious freedom "a fundamental human right."
The palace said that at a meeting at the royal offices the king and pope "stressed the need to continue and deepen Muslim-Christian dialogue and coexistence."
Christian-Islamic ties were strained worldwide after the pope in 2006 quoted a mediaeval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."
The pontiff apologised later for the "unfortunate misunderstanding."
Ahead of his visit, Jordan’s opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF) said the pope was not welcome unless he apologised for his remarks, which it says targeted Islam.
IAF leader Zaki Bani Rsheid said on Friday he had quit his post, a day after he urged the pope to apologise.
But he said his resignation "has nothing to do" with his criticism of the pope. "I have resigned to pave the way for a transitional stage within the party and for the election of a new legislative council," he told AFP.
On Thursday he told AFP: "What we want is a change in his policies, so that it is in harmony with the teachings of Jesus about love, peace, justice, equality and condemnations of crimes and Zionist terrorism."
King Abdullah on Friday stressed the "importance of co-existence and harmony between Muslim and Christian," and warned that "voices of provocation, ambitious ideologies of division, threaten unspeakable suffering."
"We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims… It is my hope that together we can expand the dialogue we have opened," he told the pope.
Christians in Jordan number around 200,000 in a total population of about six million.
On Monday, the pope will begin the second stage of his trip by flying to Israel where he is also expected to engage in inter-faith fence-mending.
In recent months, Israel and the Vatican have clashed 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.
Israel reviles Pius for what it perceives as his passive stance during the Holocaust in World War II.