Pope urges Middle East Christians to persevere

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.ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

More on Vatican