2016-07-27
AMMAN, Jordan, March 20 (RNS)--Pope John Paul II began his long-anticipated pilgrimage to the Holy Land Monday with an appeal for peace and a visit in the footsteps of Moses to the biblical site of Mount Nebo.

The 79-year-old pontiff, his movements made laborious by Parkinson's disease, slowly climbed to a lookout point on Mount Nebo to see a broad panorama of rolling hills--the Old Testament's Promised Land that Moses had seen but was not allowed to enter before his death. Towering above the site was the messianic symbol of a bronze serpent twined around a cross.

The Rev. Michele Piccirillo, a Franciscan monk who is an expert on the site and the 4th century Monastery of Mount Nebro, built over a still earlier monastery, acted as the pope's guide. The monastery has been in the hands of the Franciscan custodians of the Holy Land since 1933.

The pope listened in silence, his eyes sweeping the vista, and crossed himself before he descended.

Inside the monastery, Piccirillo showed John Paul precious 4th century mosaics on chapel floors. Because they depicted flora and fauna they escaped destruction during the iconoclastic period of the 8th and 9th centuries when many in the church rejected the veneration of sacred images as idolatry.

Scores of children, teachers, nuns and monks lined up to kiss the pope's ring as he sat on a dark red velvet throne inside the monastery.

John Paul stroked the bowed head of an elderly woman and kissed a baby in its mother's arms.

The pope drove directly from Queen Alia International Airport to Mount Nebo, which is 25 kilometers southwest of Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Among those who turned out to see the pope pass on his way to Mount Nebo was Muhammed Suleiman, a Jordanian Muslim originally who now operates a chain of jewelry stores in Santa Fe, N.M., and who had come back home to the town of Madaba near Mount Nebo in order to welcome the pope as he passed on the street.

"This will make the nation feel that all of us, both Christians and Muslims are one community,''said Suleiman. "If you think about it, Christianity and Islam, we believe in the same God. The differences are in the practice. We go to the mosque, they go to the church," said Suleiman, who described himself as a religious Muslim."

After a three-hour wait, Suleiman and the townspeople cheered and clapped as the bullet-proof popemobile finally whizzed through the streets. After it passed, everyone quickly dispersed for home.

On his arrival in Jordan, the pope walked slowly but without help down the red-carpeted landing stairs. He kissed a bowl of Jordanian soil as cannons boomed out a military salute and a white dove of peace rose into the cloudless sky. King Abdalluh II, other members of the royal family and Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim leaders greeted the pope as he descended from his special Alitalia jetliner.

In a brief address at the airport, John Paul said he had wanted since the beginning of his pontificate more than 22 years ago to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ by making a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

"From the beginning of my ministry as bishop of Rome, I have had a great desire to mark this event by praying in some of the places linked to salvation history--places that speak to us of that moment's long preparation through biblical times, places where our lord Jesus Christ actually lived or which are connected with his work of redemption," he said.

Recalling that last month he visited Egypt and Mount Sinai where the Old Testament says God revealed his name to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments, the pope said, "Today I am in Jordan--a land sanctified by the presence of Jesus himself, by the presence of Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist and of saints and martyrs of the early church."

John Paul praised the concern of Jordan's late King Hussein, of Abdullah and of all Jordanians, Muslims and Christians, for peace throughout the Middle East.

"In this area of the world there are grave and urgent issues of justice, of the rights of peoples and nations, which have to be resolved for the good of all concerned and as a condition for a lasting peace," he said. "No matter how difficult, no matter how long, the process of seeking peace must continue." The king described the pope's visit as a mission of "hope."

Speaking at the airport ceremony, he said that it would encourage "Palestinians who yearn for justice and stability," as well as Israelis seeking "security and acceptance," and Lebanese and Syrians who yearn for a "better tomorrow" and an end to war."

The pope, who arrived in the Middle East as Israeli and Palestinian officials prepared to resume negotiations in the United States, has long upheld the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland.

From Jordan, John Paul will travel Tuesday to Israel and the autonomous Palestinian territories.

Jordan mounted maximum security for the papal visit although a cordial welcome was expected from Muslims as well as Christians. In Israel, however, Jewish extremists defaced a heliport prepared for the pope with swastikas, splashes of blood red paint and the slogan, "Pope out."

The trip is the second part--Egypt last month was the first--of the pope's spiritual pilgrimage to biblical sites to mark the start of the third millennium of Christianity. The Vatican said he also hopes to encourage ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and help to create a climate for peace in the Middle East.

John Paul will celebrate Mass on Tuesday morning in the Amman sports stadium. During the Mass, 2,000 children will receive their first communion and at its conclusion, the pope will bless three cornerstones for the construction of a Maronite and a Syrian Catholic church and center.

Mount Nebo was the last Old Testament site on the pope's pilgrimage. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, he will trace the life of Jesus from the annunication to Mary that she would bear the son of God to the Last Supper on the eve of his crucifixion.

Although the pope wrote last June in a letter on his pilgrimage, "In search of the footprints of God," that it would be entirely spiritual in nature, he cannot avoid some highly controversial political issues.

John Paul is expected to reassert his call for an independent Palestinian state when he visits a Palestinian refugee camp on Wednesday. Palestinians also seek his backing for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, which Israel opposes.

The pope will face the issue of the silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust--and the anger of Jewish leaders over plans to beatify the World War II Pope Pius XII--when he visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Thursday.

This is the first papal visit to the Holy Land since Pope Paul VI traveled there in 1964 when the West Bank and Jerusalem were under Jordanian control. John Paul made a pilgrimage there in 1965 as archbishop of the Polish city of Krakow.

John Paul has spoken repeatedly of his desire to return as pope to the Holy Land, starting only two months after his election in 1978. The trip is the 91st he has made outside of Italy since becoming pontiff.
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