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

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

As the 79-year-old pope stepped off the Royal 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 his pontificate.

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

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

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

"With newfound openness toward one another, Christians and Jews together must make courageous efforts to combat all forms of prejudice," 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 40,000 worshippers and visited the site where a growing number of archaeologists and religious scholars say Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

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 a papal visit to the Hashemite kingdom's new baptismal site on the banks of the Jordan River, which will showcase the place which some historians now believe Jesus may have been baptized by John the Baptist.

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

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

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

One young Jordanian girl, who was among the 10 children selected to receive the communion directly from the pope himself, said she was so moved 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 Madeleine Kandahs said in an interview with Jordan Television.

The children and other participants began gathering at the stadium at the crack of dawn for the event, monitored by extensive security. For hours before the pope's arrival, Jordanian Air Force helicopters circled overhead while Scout and church groups marched with Jordanian and Arab flags. Groups of Lebanese and Iraqi Christians were among the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, for the tiny Christian community here, which represents at most 3 percent the population, the national welcome accorded to the pope by Islamic leaders and even rank-and-file Muslims has bolstered their sense of security and belonging in a region fragmented by religious divisions.

"We are so lucky that in our country, Muslims and Christians live in harmony like brother and sister," said Ghada Yunis, an Amman bookstore owner, who was also at the Mass to watch her 10-year-old son, Tarek, receive his first communion.

A Jordanian of Palestinian origins, Yunis' Catholic family hails originally from Nazareth, which in the months preceding the papal visit was wracked by Christian-Muslim tensions over Muslim demands that a mosque be built alongside the city's most holy Christian site, the Basilica of the Annunciation.

John Paul is set to visit the city Saturday.

And nearby, in Egypt, where the pope visited last month, the Christian Coptic community has been periodically plagued by Muslim persecution and violence, Yunis noted. Yunis' sister, Rima Eskander, meanwhile, lives in Lebanon, which suffered years of civil war between Muslims and Christian militias in the 1980s.

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