When Pope Benedict XVI steps off his plane in Amman Friday morning, King Abdullah II will be there to greet him in person. The palace announced this week, that in a break with protocol King Abdullah II had chosen to welcome the Holy Father personally.
The royal welcome will be a token of the high regard the kingdom has for Christianity and particularly for the Catholic church. Reflecting the unusually good circumstances of Christians in Jordan, the Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarchal vicar in Amman, Bishop Salim Sayyah, once said, “We are the happiest Christians in the Middle East.”
Only three per cent of the population of the Muslim country are Christians, but they find themselves among the most favored Christians in the Middle East. Present in Transjordan since the first century, the Christian population grew with the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and unofficially with the immigration of Iraqi refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s and 90s and after the U.S. war in Iraq, beginning in 2003. Like Christians elsewhere in the region, their advancement in all walks of life has benefitted from the extensive network of Catholic schools.
Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the leading churchman in the region and in the Arab world, is a Jordanian. Marwan al-Muasher, another Jordanian Christian, was the country’s first ambassador to Israel and then ambassador to the U.S. before seving as foreign minister and, until 200, as deputy prime minister.
The Hashemite royal family is well-known for its promotion of inter-faith understanding, including “A Common Word Between Us”. the 2007 open letter of 138 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders following the pope’s controversial lecture at Regensburg in 2006.
King Abdullah will continue to put his stamp on the pope’s visit, welcoming the pope to Raghadan Palace, the ceremonial royal court, and bidding him farewell at the airport–in a further break with protocol.
* This will be the first in a series of blogs on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land (Jordan, Israel and Palestine) beginning Friday, May 8, by America editor in chief Drew Christiansen, S. J. Father Christiansen served as Mideast adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for 14 years, worked as facilitator for the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land for five years, and was invested as a canon of the Holy Sepulchre for his work on behalf of the church in the Holy Land.