MOUNT NEBO, Jordan (Reuters) - Pope Benedict retraced the steps of Moses on Saturday, visiting the mountain where the Bible says the ancient prophet glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and preached that religion helps man search for truth.
From the top of Mount Nebo, the 82-year-old pontiff gazed out over the Jordan River to Jericho and the hills of Jerusalem, with the Dead Sea lost in a haze to the left of the panorama.
“Like Moses, we too have been called by name, invited to undertake a daily exodus from sin and slavery towards life and freedom,” he said in the sixth-century Moses Memorial Church.
“His example reminds us that we too are part of the ageless pilgrimage of God’s people through history.”
Benedict’s visit, billed as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, is also a highly political tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories aiming to balance Vatican relations with Jews and Arabs and repair his image in the Muslim world.
He was due to visit a mosque in Amman later on Saturday and address Muslim leaders there, giving him an opportunity to recast his stand on Islam after angering Muslims in 2006 by implying their religion was violent and unreasonable.
That speech, the Regensburg lecture, has cast such a long shadow that Jordanian Islamist leaders called for his visit to be cancelled.
Benedict gave a foretaste of his speech in remarks at Madaba, a town near Mount Nebo, when he blessed the cornerstone of a new Catholic university being built there with help from Jordan, a Muslim country keen to maintain interfaith harmony.
“Belief in God does not suppress the truth; to the contrary, it encourages it,” said the former German theology professor. “Religion is disfigured when it is pressed into the service of ignorance or prejudice, contempt, violence and abuse.”
He said the new university, which will teach in English, would produce “generations of qualified men and women Christian, Muslim and of other religions ... educated in the values of wisdom, integrity, tolerance and peace.”
Jordan, whose Christians make up about 2 percent of the population, has actively promoted religious harmony at home, in the Muslim world and between Muslims and Christians worldwide.
Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, a cousin of King Abdullah and a leading figure in the “Common Word” initiative for Christian-Muslim dialogue, will address the pope at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque dedicated to the late monarch.
The Common Word project, launched in 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars from around the world, says Christianity and Islam share the values of love of God and love of neighbours. It says scholarly exchanges can help defuse tensions between the faiths.
Benedict has been at pains to put the Regensburg speech, which he says was misinterpreted, behind him. He seized the first opportunity on arrival in Amman on Friday.
“My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community,” he said, praising his host King Abdullah for his work in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.
This still did not please his critics. Sheikh Hamza Mansour, leading Islamist scholar and politician, told Reuters the pope had “not sent any message to Muslims that expresses his respect for Islam or its religious symbols starting with the Prophet.”
Benedict will stay in Jordan until Monday, when he moves on to Israel to start the most delicate part of his trip.
The Vatican supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not specifically discussed establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a U.S. and Arab priority.
Speaking to reporters on the plane taking him to Jordan, the pope said the Catholic Church would do everything it could to help the region’s stalled peace process.