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02/11/2013

A look at Pope Benedict XVI's Middle East 2009 tour

Pope-dome-outside
Pope Benedict XVI at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, May 2009. (Reuters)

From the moment he stepped off the airplane in Amman and gave his first speech it was clear Pope Benedict XVI was trying to repair relations with the Muslim world. It was May 2009 and his first visit to the Middle East, a week-long tour taking in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

On the tarmac in Jordan he spoke of his “deep respect” for the Muslim community and called his visit a “pilgrimage of peace.” I covered that visit. It was choreographed minutely – and tense. He was the first pope to enter the sacred Muslim place of worship Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in a gesture of peace. 

But Benedict was not popular among Muslims compared with the reverence and admiration his predecessor John Paul II attracted.

In 2006 Benedict gave a speech where he quoted a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad as "evil and inhuman.” The pope later clarified his remarks and said the quotes did not reflect his personal opinion. But the nuance was lost. Churches were burned down in several countries.

The road that day from Amman airport to a disabled centre run by nuns on the outskirts of Amman was completely blocked off and lined by Jordanian soldiers. There were no protests. The kingdom’s autocratic rulers made sure of that. 

Every speech and remark that week was translated into several languages and distributed to the world’s media minutes before he spoke so there could be no repeat of the 2006 Regensburg address. At one point, the pontiff even referred to God as “merciful and compassionate,” using a common Islamic phrase when referring to Allah.

Benedict visited Lebanon last year, urging Muslims and Christians to live in harmony.

But there was probably little he could have done to build bridges with the Muslim world.  The Israeli occupation, the fall out of the Iraq invasion, the debacle of Afghanistan have stymied the world’s superpowers and the United Nations let alone this shy, scholarly pope who is no doubt looking forward to a quiet retirement. 


Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour 

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