AMMAN Jordanian Islamist leaders on Thursday condemned Pope Benedict's visit to the Middle East, saying it was provocative because he has not apologized for offending comments implying Islam was violent and irrational.
They said the pope, who arrives in Jordan on Friday on the first leg of a tour including Israel and the Palestinian territories, still owed them an apology for hinting Islam was violent and irrational in a 2006 speech in Regensburg.
Jordan's Roman Catholic Church urged Islamists on Wednesday to welcome the pope despite their earlier criticism of his visit. A senior Amman official acknowledged some discontent but said the government would warmly welcome Benedict.
"The present Vatican pope is the one who issued severe insults to Islam and did not offer any apology to the Muslims," Zaki Bani Rusheid, head of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest mainstream Islamist party, told Reuters.
"Ignoring Muslim sentiments will only block the healing of wounds his statements caused," said another Islamist figure, Jamil Abu Baker.
For many Arabs in the region, the pope's stated mission of peace and reconciliation is futile without a sufficient gesture to Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.
This was even more pressing in Jordan, a country where a large portion of its 5.6 million are of Palestinian origin, they or their parents having been expelled or fled to Jordan in the fighting that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948.
"It's the same pope who apologized to the Jews about the Holocaust and now comes to the region but says nothing about the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe)," Bani Rusheid added. Arabs call Israel's creation the "Nakba" (catastrophe).
In his appeal on Wednesday, Amman's Auxiliary Bishop Selim Sayegh said: "The Holy Father did not intend to insult anybody (in his Regensburg speech) and his trip to Turkey was proof of the steps he has taken for interreligious dialogue."
The senior official, who asked not to be named, said Jordan was satisfied with the state of Catholic-Muslim dialogue and appreciated Benedict's readiness to visit a mosque here.
The Islamists said the pope faced a tougher task in the May 8-15 trip than his predecessor Pope John Paul, whose historic journey in 2000 was admired by Jews and Muslims alike.
"What is needed from the pope is to have the courage to apologize," Bani Rusheid said. Benedict has expressed regret for misunderstandings over Regensburg but not for the speech itself.
All ears will be on what he says when he visits the Al Hussein bin Talal mosque in Amman and addresses Muslim religious leaders and other dignitaries there. His only other visit to a mosque was in Istanbul only weeks after the Regensburg speech.
Jordanian Islamists also condemned a visit to Jerusalem's memorial to Holocaust victims, demanding a comparable gesture to "victimized Palestinians" to prove he was even-handed.
"We ask if the Vatican pope will visit Gaza to explore how humanity is being violated," Jamil Abu Bakr said.
The outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir Party issued a statement urging Jordanian authorities to withdraw their invitation.
"All Muslims should raise their voices high to say that any one who insults our Prophet is not welcome on this land in any way," said the radical party, which seeks to unite Muslims into a pan-Islamic state but says its means are peaceful.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)