AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Benedict XVI praised Sunday 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 throughout 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 at the Mass. "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 the Latin rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, who recalled that Jordan has taken in more than 1 million Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, some 40,000 of them Christians. According to Vatican statistics, Jordanian Christians in a community that dates back nearly 2,000 years are less than 2 percent of the country's overwhelmingly Muslim population.
Many Iraqi Christians were forced to flee the sectarian violence following the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq. Muslim militants targeted Iraqi Christians, many who were killed, raped or kidnapped. Several churches across Iraq 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 76 million, Coptic Christians have strained relations with Muslims. Violent clashes have erupted between the two sides in recent years.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Benedict was pleased with his Mideast trip so far and believed he had accomplished his objective of warming relations with Muslims, saying the dialogue had taken "new steps forward."
The weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage is Benedict's first trip as pope to the Middle East — where he has faced sharp criticism by both Muslims and Jews.
He angered many in the Muslim world three years ago when he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith." When he arrived in Jordan on Saturday, Benedict expressed his "deep respect" for Islam and hoped the Catholic Church would be a force for peace.
He said the 82-year-old pope is "in good form, relaxed and pleased with the welcome."
The German pope will also have to tread carefully when he arrives in Israel on Monday for the final four-day leg of his tour, which will also bring him to the Palestinian territories. Earlier this year, Benedict sparked outrage among Jews when he revoked the excommunication of an ultraconservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.
Catholics from across the Middle East attended Sunday's Mass. Many held up flags from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries and applauded the pope's words and shouted out his name. Forty Iraqi children making their first communion wore long white robes as they waved the Iraqi and Vatican flags.
In his homily, Benedict said he hoped Christians would always get the "material and moral assistance" they need. He also paid tribute to Christian women in the region, saying many have "devoted their lives to building peace and fostering harmony."
As the pope arrived later in the day at Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ's baptism, about 5,000 people greeted him as church bells pealed.
Lebanese Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the influential Christian Maronite community, said as he waited for the pope at the site, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Amman, that Benedict's tour had boosted the morale of Christians.
"The Pope's Mideast tour gives a big push forward to Christians in the region and makes them feel the importance of their presence and their important role in their societies," Sfeir said. "It also gives Christians the feeling of peace and security. People were eager for this trip, which boosts their morale."
Later Sunday, Benedict will also bless the foundation stones of Latin and Greek Melkite churches.