Pope Benedict begins visit to Israel

Pope Benedict XVI on the banks of the river Jordan on his first visit to the Middle East.
Pope Benedict XVI headed to Israel on Monday on his first visit to the Mideast, aimed at promoting good relations between Muslims and Christians.

Benedict’s stop in Tel Aviv will begin his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is scheduled to pay courtesy visits to Jerusalem’s Muslim grand mufti and two chief rabbis. The pope is on an eight-day trip to the region, which includes places of unequaled religious resonance for the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. The pontiff will return to Rome on Friday. His Middle East trip started in Jordan, where he urged greater respect for women Sunday at a historic Mass. “Sadly, this God-given dignity of the role of women has not always been sufficiently understood and esteemed,” Benedict said. “By its public witness of respect for women … the Church in the Holy Land can make an important contribution to the advancement of a culture of true humanity and the building of the civilization of love,” the pope said. But the main message of the 13-minute address before a congregation of thousands was that Christians in the Middle East must persevere — an acknowledgment that the Christian population has declined sharply in the past 50 years in the region where the religion was born. Watch how Jordan residents’ reaction to the pope’s visit ยป He also called on the faithful to oppose terrorism through good examples.

Living a good Christian life “means bearing witness to the love which inspires us to lay own our lives in the service of others, and thus to counter ways of thinking which justify taking innocent lives,” he said. He encouraged dialogue among Christians of different denominations — long a passion of his — and among Christians and people of other faiths and cultures.