Pope to visit site of Jesus' baptism in Jordan

AMMAN Sat May 9, 2009 7:10pm EDT

1 of 14. Pope Benedict XVI attends mass at Saint George Victorious Cathedral in Amman May 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Sunday visits the site believed to be where Jesus was baptized as he wraps up his visit to Jordan and prepares to leave for Israel to start the most delicate part of his first Middle East trip.

On Sunday afternoon Benedict travels east of the Jordanian capital Amman to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jordanian experts have unearthed ruins of ancient churches amid the tamarisk trees and found early pilgrims' writings about the site.

Here, according to tradition, was where John the Baptist lived and where he baptized Jesus when Jesus was about 30 years old. New archaeological evidence was found in 1996.

A rival site exists on the Israel side of the Jordan River but most scholars believe the Biblical site for the cleansing ritual was on the Jordanian side.

Archaeologists have found a number of churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods since excavations began.

Christian denominations have begun building new churches for modern pilgrims nearby. Benedict will lay cornerstones for two Catholic churches.

He starts Sunday, his last full day in Jordan, by celebrating the first and only public Mass during his stay in the country.

On Monday, Benedict moves on to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the most delicate part of his trip, whose main theme so far has been Christian-Muslim relations.

MENDING FENCES WITH ISLAM

On Saturday, Benedict visited a mosque in another attempt to mend fences with Islam after a speech he made in 2006 that caused offence to Muslims.

Speaking at the modern King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman, he struck a note of harmony and shared purpose between the world's two largest faith groups, urging Christians and Muslims to jointly defend religion from political manipulation.

"I firmly believe Christians and Muslims can embrace (the task of cooperation), particularly through our respective contributions to learning and scholarship, and public service," he told Islamic leaders and diplomats at the mosque.

Addressing the pope, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal reminded the pope of the "hurt" Muslims around the world felt in 2006 after Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was irrational and violent.

Ghazi, a cousin of Jordanian King Abdullah, told the gathering the Muslim world "appreciated" the Vatican's clarification and accepted that the pope was not expressing his own opinion at the time but making an historical citation.

In one section of his address at the mosque, Benedict referred to God as "merciful and compassionate," using the formula Muslims use when speaking of God.

Benedict said while no one could deny a history of tensions and divisions, Christians and Muslims should prevent "the manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends."

"That is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society."

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