AMMAN, Jordan - Pope Benedict praised the courage of Middle East Christians who cling to their faith despite war and adversity on Sunday, 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 one million Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, some 40,000 of them Christians.
According to Vatican statistics, Jordanian Christians, a community that dates back nearly 2,000 years, are less than two per cent 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 of whom were killed, raped or kidnapped. Several churches in 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 emigrating in high numbers - mainly to the West. In Egypt, which has the biggest Christian community in the region at about 10 per cent 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 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.
Lombardi said the 82-year-old Pope is "in good form, relaxed and pleased with the welcome."
Sunday afternoon, Benedict travelled some 50 kilometres from Amman to Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ's baptism. He got into a golf cart, with King Abdullah seated beside him, and was driven a few metres from the riverbed.
He blessed the foundation stones of Latin and Greek Melkite churches and kept up his theme, speaking of the contributions Christians can make to end violence and suffering in the Middle East "inspired by the example of Jesus, of reconciliation and peace."
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."
Rev. Raymond Mousalli, an Iraqi priest, said Iraqis of all faiths must sit together and find peace after years of war.
"The holy father speaks here, and his voice is heard in the Middle East especially by Iraqi Christians who are suffering a lot," Mousalli said.
Peter Samaan, a 15-year-old Iraqi dressed in a white communion robe, said he hoped Benedict could one day travel to Iraq.
"We Christians want to return. We are strangers in this country." Samaan said, adding that his family fled Iraq to avoid persecution.