The Pope arrives in the epicenter. Meets with Jordan’s King. Heads to Baptism Site.

King Abdullah II and Queen Rania welcome Pope Francis to Jordan and introduce him to the Crown Prince.

King Abdullah II and Queen Rania welcome Pope Francis to Jordan and introduce him to the Crown Prince.

Pope-MideasttripPope Francis began his first official trip to the epicenter today. It’s an important trip, to be sure. But what’s intriguing to me is how big a deal this visit is being treated by the Muslim leaders of Jordan, and the Jewish leaders of Israel. Both sides seek better relations with Christians in general, and Catholics in particular.

Given that the Pope began his Mideast travels in Amman, Jordan, today, let’s start there.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of traveling to Jordan. During my trip, I met with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi, and other top officials. As I wrote about at the time, I was doing research for a new book, as well trying to understand His Majesty’s intriguing efforts to build stronger ties between Muslim and Christian leaders. Indeed, a major topic of discussion while I was there was the Pope’s upcoming visit, the third visit by a Pontiff since King Abdullah II ascended to the throne in 1999.

HRH Prince Ghazi specifically encouraged me to visit the Baptism Site along the East Bank of the Jordan River and learn more about its special history and importance. He even provided a car and driver and asked the director of the site to give me a personal tour and briefing. It was a fascinating time (read about it here), especially given the approaching papal visit.

“We are part of the Holy Land,” Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told me during our meeting at his office in Amman.

“Moses came here and died here,” he noted, as did many prophets, including Elijah. “And we are very proud that Jesus came here and was baptized here,” he added.

Ensour noted that “there are very few places where you can be sure the feet of Christ tread on them.” But Jordan is one of them, he said. He pointed specifically to the Baptism Site located along the east bank of the Jordan River, which he described as of the “utmost importance.”

“There you find exactly half an acre where we know Jesus came, where John the Baptist lived,” he told me.

Today, after months of preparation and anticipation, Pope Francis finally arrived, and the Jordan’s have literally rolled out the red carpet.

“Their Majesties King Abdullah and Queen Rania, and Crown Prince Hussein, received Pope Francis at Husseinieh Palace in Amman on Saturday,” reports the Jordan Times. “The King stressed the importance of the message of tolerance, peace and coexistence the Pope is delivering to the region.”

“The Pontiff arrived in Amman as part of a three-day visit to the Holy Land,” the Times noted. “At the meeting with the Pope, King Abdullah said the papal visit delivers an important message of tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians. The King and the Pontiff discussed Jordan-Vatican ties and the need to strengthen dialogue between Muslims and Christians. In his welcoming speech, His Majesty said that it was a ‘special honour’ for the Kingdom that the Pope’s pilgrimage begins in Jordan. The King said that the first official papal visit to a Muslim country was to Jordan, about 50 years ago.”

“It is a special honour that your pilgrimage to the Holy Land begins here, in Jordan: land of faith, land of fellowship,” said King Abdullah II. “Here, fifty years ago, my late father His Majesty King Hussein welcomed Pope Paul the Sixth — the first official papal visit to a Muslim country. Here, fourteen years ago, I was privileged to welcome Saint John Paul the Second; and five years ago, Pope Benedict the Sixteenth.”

King Abdullah said that Muslims and Christians in Jordan are building a shared future “on the common ground of mutual respect, peace and devotion to God,” reported the Times. “Pope Francis commended Jordan’s ‘generous welcome’ to Syrian refugees, which, he said, commands international appreciation and support.”

“I thank the authorities of the Kingdom for all they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region,” Pope Francis said.

NOTE: Please follow me on Twitter for updates on the Pope’s visit over the next few days. Thanks.

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