AMMAN, Jordan — Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday praised the courage of Middle East Christians who cling to their faith despite war and adversity, addressing a crowd of 20,000 who filled a sports stadium where he celebrated the first open-air Mass of his Holy Land pilgrimage.
For years, the church has been alarmed by the declining presence of Christians in the Holy Land and the Middle East -- ancient communities driven out by conflict and poverty.
"The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect the people of the Middle East," Benedict said, speaking in English. "May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world." He said fidelity to the church's mission in the Middle East "demands of each of you a particular kind of courage" that requires building ties with people of other religions and cultures.
The pope was welcomed at the stadium in Arabic by Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin rite patriarch of Jerusalem, who recalled that Jordan has taken in more than 1million Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, 40,000 of them Christians. According to Vatican statistics, the community of Jordanian Christians dates back nearly 2,000 years and makes up less than 2 percent of the country's overwhelmingly Muslim population.
Many Iraqi Christians were forced to flee sectarian violence after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Muslim militants targeted Iraqi Christians, and many were killed, raped or kidnapped. Several churches were bombed, and clergy were killed.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Palestinian Christians, squeezed between Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land, have been immigrating in high numbers -- mainly to the West. In Egypt, which has the biggest Christian community in the region at about 10 percent of the country's 76million, Coptic Christians have strained relations with Muslims. Violent clashes have erupted between the two sides in recent years.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said Benedict has been pleased with his Mideast trip so far and thinks he has accomplished his objective of warming relations with Muslims.