Image: Jordanian and Lebanese Christians wave national flags beneath a huge portrait of Pope Benedict XVI and Jordan's King Abdullah II
ALBERTO PIZZOLI  /  AFP - Getty Images
Jordanian and Lebanese Christians wave national flags beneath a huge portrait of Pope Benedict XVI and Jordan's King Abdullah II during a rare mass celebrated by the pontiff in Amman's football stadium on Sunday.
updated 5/10/2009 5:10:44 AM ET 2009-05-10T09:10:44

Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged Middle East Christians to persevere in their faith despite hardships threatening the existence of their ancient communities.

An estimated 20,000 people filled a Jordanian sports stadium as Benedict celebrated the first open-air Mass of his Middle East pilgrimage.

"The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect the people of the Middle East," Benedict said, speaking in English, at the Amman stadium.

"May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world," he said.

Catholics from across region
Catholics from across the Middle East are attending the service. Many held up flags from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries. They applauded the pope's words and shouted out his name.

The Mass was on the third day of Benedict's weeklong pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The pope was welcomed at the stadium in Arabic by the Latin rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, who recalled that Jordan has taken in more than 1 million Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, some 40,000 of them Christians. According to Vatican statistics, Christians are less than 2 percent of Jordan's overwhelmingly Muslim population.

For years, the church has been alarmed by the declining presence of Christians in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East, driven out by war and economic hardship.

In his homily Sunday, Benedict urged that the "material and moral assistance" Christians need will never be lacking. He also paid tribute to Christian women in the region, saying many have "devoted their lives to building peace and fostering harmony."

Father Raymond Mousalli, an Iraqi priest, said there are about 20,000 Iraqi Christians in Jordan, and Iraqis of all faiths must sit together and find peace after years of war.

"The holy father speaks here, and his voice is heard in the Middle East especially by Iraqi Christians who are suffering a lot," Mousalli said.

Peter Samaan, 15-year-old Iraqi dressed in a white communion robe, said he hoped Benedict could one day travel to Iraq.

"We Christians want to return. We are strangers in this country." Samaan said, adding that his family fled Iraq to avoid persecution.

In the afternoon, Benedict was scheduled to travel some 30 miles from Amman to Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ's baptism. He will also bless the foundation stones of Latin and Greek Melkite churches.

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Photos: Pope’s pilgrimage

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  1. Pope Benedict prays in the Golgotha, or Calvary, the traditional site where Jesus was crucified, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday. It was Benedict's first visit as pope to the place where Christ was crucified, died, was buried and then rose from the dead, according to the Christian faith. (Yannis Behrakis / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Pope Benedict kisses the Stone of Anointing, where Christians believe the body of Jesus was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pope Benedict sits during a visit at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pope Benedict XVI is given a Nativity icon by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III during his visit to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Heidi Levine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass Thursday in the Church of the Annunciation in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth. The church, built over the remains of Byzantine and Crusader churches in the town where Jesus grew up, contains a grotto in which, tradition says, the Virgin Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Son of God. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Christian nuns and pilgrims attend a mass led by the pope at the Church of the Annunciation. (Jonathan Nackstrand / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pope Benedict XVI talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Franciscan convent in Nazareth. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Christian pilgrims and worshippers attend a mass led by Pope Benedict at the Church of the Annunciation. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Worshippers sing songs and dance before a mass on Mount Precipice led by the pope in the northern Israeli town of Nazareth. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Christian pilgrim poses for a picture on the pope's chair after the pointiff's mass on Mount Precipice. (Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Catholic nuns greet Pope Benedict as he arrives at the Holy Mass on Mount Precipice. The pontiff is nearing the end of his eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. (David Silverman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The pope arrives for a mass on Mount Precipice, where the Bible says a mob tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff. Tens of thousands of the faithful turned out in the town of Jesus's boyhood to see the pope in the heartland of Israel's minority Arab population. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful from his Popemobile as he arrives at Mount Precipice. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Youths rest during a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI. (Darren Whiteside / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tens of thousands of pilgrims gather for mass by Pope Benedict on Mount Precipice, just outside the city of Nazareth. With flags and banners unfurled, pilgrims thronged to the beat of drums and tambourines to witness the pope celebrate his largest Holy Land mass. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pope Benedict XVI waves to Palestinians after a ceremony at the Aida Refugee Camp, backdropped by the separation barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Wednesday. (Muhammed Muheisen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Palestinian children peer through a fence as they try and catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to Aida Refugee Camp in the city of Jesus' birth. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Nuns wait for the upcoming Holy Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Manger Square. (Carsten Koall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A poster depicting Pope Benedict XVI and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hangs on a building as a member of the Palestinian security forces stands guard atop a roof overlooking Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (Abed Al Hashlamoun / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pope Benedict XVI blesses Catholic nuns during mass in Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A picture of Pope Benedict XVI is seen reflected on his Popemobile during his visit to the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pope Benedict XVI reviews a Palestinian honour guard accompanied by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on his arrival to Bethlehem, West Bank. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Members of a Palestinian honour guard get ready for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI to Bethlehem, West Bank. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope Benedict XVI walks in front of the Dome of the Rock, on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City. (Osservatore Romano via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pope Benedict XVI visits the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's old city. The pope waded into the heart of the Middle East conflict, calling for the faithful to overcome past discord and reiterating the Church's commitment to reconciliation with Jews. (Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Nuns walk past an Israeli policeman after taking part in prayers with Pope Benedict at the Latin Patriarch Church in Jerusalem's Old City. (Brian Hendler / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A priest photographs Pope Benedict XVI as he blesses Christians at the Latin Patriarch Church in Jerusalem's Old City. (Brian Hendler / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pope Benedict XVI lays a wreath in memory of the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial's Hall of Remembrances. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Pope Benedict XVI hugs Israeli President Shimon Peres during a reception at the President's residency in Jerusalem. (Ettore Ferrari / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes Pope Benedict XVI upon the Pontiff's arrival at Ben Gurion airport . Pope Benedict XVI began the second leg of a pilgrimage to Middle East holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Pavel Wolberg / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. King Abdullah II of Jordan, right, prepares to bid Pope Benedict XVI farewell at Queen Alia airport as the Pope departs after a 4-day visit to Jordan, on Monday. (Salah Malkawi / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A Palestinian boy paints graffiti on a section of Israel's separation barrier in Aida refugee camp, ahead of Pope Benedict's visit, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 10. Pope Benedict XVI urged Middle East Christians to persevere in their faith despite hardships threatening the existence of their ancient communities. (Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Sunday Mass at a stadium in Amman, Jordan. On the final day of his visit to Jordan, the pontiff urged Christians to be faithful to their roots. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the open-air football stadium in Amman. (Carsten Koall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Pope Benedict XVI celebrates a mass in a stadium. Pope Benedict XVI is on his first trip to the Middle East and his final day in Jordan before moving on to visit the Palestinian territories and Israel. (Carsten Koall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Pope Benedict XVI gives a Jordanian woman Holy Communion as he celebrates Sunday Mass. (Jamal Nasrallah / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Pope Benedict XVI rides in a vehicle as he arrives at Bethany Beyond the Jordan on the east bank of the Jordan River on Sunday. Pope Benedict visited the site believed to be where Jesus was baptized. (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Christian worshippers pray inside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday. (Muhammed Muheisen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Pope Benedict XVI, right, and Jose Rodriguez Carballo stand beside "The Staff of Moses" during the Pope's visit to Mountain Nebo on Saturday, May 9, near Amman, Jordan. The pope called for reconciliation between Christians and Jews during his visit to Jordan, where in the biblical tradition God showed Moses the Promised Land. Pope Benedict XVI is on his first trip to the Middle East, which will also include the West Bank and Israel. (Carsten Koall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Pope Benedict XVI waves at the crowd from inside his popemobile as he tours the southern Jordanian town of Madaba on Saturday. The pope was driven past churches in Madaba, including an Orthodox church famous for its sixth century mosaic map of biblical Palestine. Hundreds of people waving Jordanian and Vatican flags had gathered to greet the 82-year-old German pontiff. (Patrick Baz / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Pope Benedict XVI and Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal sit surrounded by security personnel during the Pope's visit to King Hussein Bin Talal mosque in Amman on Saturday. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Tourists touch a poster welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday. Bethlehem is one of the locations Pope Benedict is expected to visit during his tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Ammar Awad / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Vatican flags decorate a street in the old city of Jerusalem on Friday ahead of the pontiff's visit on May 11. (Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. The pope's entourage exits the plane in Amman, Jordan, on Friday. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Pope Benedict XVI greets Jordan's King Abdullah, his wife Queen Rania and their children at the royal palace in Amman on Friday. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the Lady of Peace Church in Amman. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Pope Benedict XVI briefs reporters on his plane en route to Jordan on Friday. He later arrived in Jordan on his first visit as pontiff to an Arab state, kicking off an eight-day Holy Land pilgrimage. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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