Beliefnet
JERUSALEM, March 21 (RNS)--Pope John Paul II, "with profound emotion," Tuesdayentered Israel--"the land where God chose to pitch his tent and madeit possible for man to encounter him more directly"--as the firstRoman Catholic pontiff to officially visit the Jewish state.

After nearly two full days in Jordan--during which he celebrated a Massfor 40,000 people, visited the site where Jesus is said to have beenbaptized and gazed, like Moses, into the Promised Land from Mount Nebo--John Paul arrived at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport after a short flightfrom Amman, the Jordanian capital.

As the 79-year-old pope stepped off theRoyal Jordanian plane, trumpets blared a ceremonial welcome.

His visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which will end Sunday, will be one of the most politically and diplomatically sensitive of the 91 one foreign trips he has taken during hispontificate.

"Many things have changed in relations between the Holy See and thestate of Israel since my predecessor, Pope Paul VI, came here in 1964,"John Paul noted. Among the changes were that Paul's visit was unofficialand came before the Vatican and Israel had established diplomaticrelations.

In his airport welcoming address, John Paul took note of some of thepolitical issues that make the Middle East one of the mostdiplomatically volatile regions of the world.

"World opinion follows with close attention the peace processwhich finds all the peoples of the region involved in the difficultsearch for a lasting peace and justice for all," the pontiff said.

"With newfound openness toward one another, Christians and Jewstogether must make courageous efforts to combat all forms ofprejudice," he said.

Following the airport ceremony, the pope headed for Jerusalem, where he will spend each night during his visit.

Earlier, in Jordan, John Paul celebrated a Mass for some 40,000worshippers and visited the site where a growing number ofarchaeologists and religious scholars say Jesus was baptized by John theBaptist.

At the Mass, John Paul was greeted with chants of "God bless you"and "Hallelujah."

The Mass, devoted largely to the theme of baptism, was followed by apapal visit to the Hashemite kingdom's new baptismal site on the banksof the Jordan River, which will showcase the place which some historiansnow believe Jesus may have been baptized by John the Baptist.

Shouting, crying and clapping, hundreds of Jordanians engulfed thepope's popemobile as he circled around the stadium grounds at the outsetof the Mass, but settled back into their seats as the multilingualliturgy in English, Arabic and French got underway.

"At the River Jordan, John the Baptist points to Jesus as the oneupon whom the Holy Spirit descends like a dove," said the pope in anaccent-coated English homily.

Hundreds of children, dressed in long white gowns and carryingyellow candles celebrated their first communion in the open-air ceremonyunder cold and cloudy skies, which burst open with rain just as thethree-hour ceremony was ending.

One young Jordanian girl, who was among the 10 children selected toreceive the communion directly from the pope himself, said she was somoved by the event that she intended to devote her life to the church.

"I want to become a nun when I grow up," 10-year-old MadeleineKandahs said in an interview with Jordan Television.

The children and other participants began gathering at the stadiumat the crack of dawn for the event, monitored by extensive security. Forhours before the pope's arrival, Jordanian Air Force helicopters circledoverhead while Scout and church groups marched with Jordanian and Arabflags. Groups of Lebanese and Iraqi Christians were among the crowd.

The crowd sang Arabic hymns to an organ accompaniment, which mixedpatriotic messages with peace and religious themes.

"We feel as if Jesus Christ himself were here with us," said RimaGammo, an Amman housewife who waited with anticipation for her youngestson, Odeh, to take his first communion during the event.

She said she hoped the visit would further improve relations betweenJordan's majority Muslim and minority Christian community, wheretensions bubble beneath a harmonious surface.

"I hope that peace will come," she said, "I hope people will stopfighting and arguing in this society, not only about politics but alsoabout social issues and religion.

"Because you know that while Muslims and Christians visit eachother and eat with each other, there are always some closedminded-people on each side. So it is good for them to see these twogreat leaders, Jordan's King Abdullah and Pope John Paul II, Christianand Muslim, showing such respect to each other."

Indeed, for the tiny Christian community here, which represents atmost 3 percent the population, the national welcome accorded to the popeby Islamic leaders and even rank-and-file Muslims has bolstered theirsense of security and belonging in a region fragmented byreligious divisions.

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