Pope gazes upon Promised Land

Pilgrimage to Mideast begins in Jordan with prayers for peace

March 21, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOUNT NEBO, Jordan -- Pope John Paul II began a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land yesterday, standing atop this wind-swept peak where Moses is said to have gazed down on the Jordan valley to the Promised Land, the "land of milk and honey" that God allowed him to see but would not let him enter.

The pope came to Jordan on the first leg of a spiritual journey that has already taken him to Mount Sinai and continues today as he arrives in Jerusalem, where he will spend the rest of the week visiting sites holy to the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Before leaving Jordan, he was to celebrate a Mass this morning in an Amman stadium and visit a site on the Jordan River where some archaeologists believe Jesus was baptized.

Pope John Paul's plane, preceded by a military escort of four Jordanian fighter planes, touched down at 2 p.m. at Queen Alia International Airport, just south of the capital, Amman.

The 79-year-old pontiff slowly descended the steps from the green and white Alitalia jet as eight ceremonial buglers sounded a fanfare and a 21-gun salute boomed from a military battery. He was greeted by three children, a Christian boy, a Muslim boy and a Muslim girl, who presented him with a bouquet of black irises. He kissed a bowl of Jordanian earth, as is his custom now that he is too infirm to bend down and kiss the ground.

The pope's first stop yesterday was Mount Nebo, believed to be the place described in Deuteronomy where Moses gazed across the river valley and looked on Jerusalem:

"Moses the prophet went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the headland of Pisgah which faces Jericho, and the Lord showed him all the land and said to him, 'You shall not cross over.' Moses died there and was buried in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite to Beth-peor, but to this day no one knows the place of his burial."

What was Moses' offense deserving of such a punishment after 40 years of leading the Israelites through the desert after their escape from Egyptian enslavement? According to the Bible, he disobeyed the command of God, who told him merely to speak to bring forth the waters of Meribah from a rock. Moses struck the rock instead, sealing his fate on Mount Nebo.

Since 1933, the Roman Catholic Franciscans have supervised the excavations of a fourth-century church and monastery on the mountain, where they unearthed intricate mosaics. The ruins are being reconstructed, and here the pope, sitting amid walls and flooring of golden brown brick and columns rising halfway to the ceiling, spent several minutes yesterday in silent prayer.

He then walked into the sunshine and mounted a platform, gazing silently for about five minutes, looking down, as did Moses, on the expanse of the Jordan valley toward the Dead Sea, Jericho and, in the distance, the hills of Jerusalem.

"Our gaze directed toward Jerusalem, let us lift up our prayers to Almighty God, for all the people living in the land of promise, Jews, Muslims and Christians," he said. "Bestow upon all who live here the gift of true peace, justice, fraternity."

The pope comes to this politically charged region saying he wants to avoid politics, focusing instead on a spiritual quest of following in the footsteps of the biblical patriarchs and prophets, and of Jesus of Nazareth, although many who live in the Holy Land undoubtedly have other ideas.

"From the beginning of my ministry as bishop of Rome, I have had a great desire to mark this event by praying in some of the places linked to salvation history -- places that speak to us of that moment's long preparation through biblical times, places where our Lord Jesus Christ actually lived, or which are connected with his work of redemption," the pope said during the arrival ceremony.

He began that pilgrimage last month, when he traveled to Egypt and prayed at a site many revere as Mount Sinai, where God revealed the Law of the Covenant to Moses.

"Today, I am in Jordan," he said, "a land familiar to me from the Holy Scriptures; a land sanctified by the presence of Jesus himself, by the presence of Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist, and of saints and martyrs of the early church."

But Pope John Paul also touched on the theme that will be the centerpiece of his Middle East journey: the pursuit of a lasting peace in the region, an issue that takes on greater urgency as talks resume near Washington today between the Israelis and Palestinians.

"Your Majesty, I know how deeply concerned you are for peace in your own land and in the entire region, and how important it is to you that all Jordanians -- Muslims and Christians -- should consider themselves as one people and one family," he told Jordan's King Abdullah II. "In this area of the world there are grave and urgent issues of justice, of the rights of peoples and nations, which have to be resolved for the good of all concerned and as a condition for lasting peace."

'It is now your turn'

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