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In Jordan, Pope searches for voice of moderate Islam May 11, 2009

In Jordan, on the first stop of his week-long visit to the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI devoted much of his attention to relations between Christianity and Islam.

Jordan was a natural site for the Pope's effort to establish some rapport with moderate Islamic leaders. The nation's government has been a force for tolerance and religious freedom, and the Pope paid tribute to the international role played by the country's ruler, King Abdullah II, and his late father King Hussein.

Moreover, King Abdullah's cousin, Prince Gazhi bin Muhammad bin Talal, is the leading Islamic sponsor of the "Common Word" initiative, undertaken by 138 Islamic scholars who wrote to the Pope and other Christian leaders, asking for an intensification of dialogue, in response to the international furor roused by the Pope's Regensburg address. The Common Word initiative has now borne fruit, with Christian and Islamic leaders meeting to exchange ideas, establish a basis for cooperation, and join in the public denunciation of religious extremism.

"Tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions sadly cannot be denied," Pope Benedict said in Amman, Jordan. But he argued that "often it is the ideological manipulation of religion-- sometimes for political ends-- that it is real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence."

Pope Benedict proclaimed his esteem for Islam, visiting a mosque in Amman, accompanied by Prince Ghazi. (Some reporters were surprised that the Pope did not remove his shoes, as is usually required by Muslim observance. Vatican officials pointed out that a carpet had been laid in the mosque to welcome the Pope, changing the usual protocol. Prince Ghazi also wore his shoes during the visit.)

More radical Islamic leaders denounced the Pope, demanding a repeated apology for his critique of Muslim thought in the Regensburg address. The radical leaders questioned the integrity of the Pope's Muslim hosts, saying that the Pontiff had defamed their faith by suggesting that Islam is intolerant.

Nevertheless the Holy Father pressed forward with the main theme of his Regensburg lecture, insisting that religious dialogue is possible only when all parties involved respect the claims of reason. "As believers in the one God we know that human reason is God's gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God's truth," the Pope said. He added that true religious faith "far from narrowing our minds, widens the horizon of human understanding."