By VICTOR L. SIMPSON, Associated Press Writer Victor L. Simpson, Associated Press Writer
AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep respect for Islam Friday and said he hopes the Catholic Church can play a role in Mideast peace as he began his first trip to the region, where he hopes to improve frayed ties with Muslims.
The pope was met at the airport by Jordan's King Abdullah and praised the moderate Arab country as a leader in efforts to promote peace in the region and dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
The pope rankled many in the Muslim world with a 2006 speech in which he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
The pope has already said he was "deeply sorry" over the reaction to his speech and that the passage he quoted did not reflect his own opinion.
"My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by his majesty the king in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam," Benedict said shortly after landing in Amman.
But his past comments continue to fuel criticism by some Muslims.
Jordan's hard-line Muslim Brotherhood said Friday before the pope arrived that its members would boycott his visit because he did not issue a public apology ahead of time as they demanded.
Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr said the absence of a public apology meant "obstacles and boundaries will remain and will overshadow any possible understanding between the pope and the Muslim world."
The Brotherhood is Jordan's largest opposition group. Although it commands a small bloc in parliament, it wields considerable sway, especially among poor Jordanians.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Vatican has made all possible clarifications, telling Associated Press Television News that "we cannot continue until the end of the world to repeat the same clarifications."
Despite the controversy, Benedict expressed hope his visit and the power of the Catholic church could help further peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.
"We are not a political power but a spiritual power that can contribute," Benedict told reporters on the plane before he landed in Amman.
The pope will also visit Israel and the Palestinian territories during his weeklong tour.
Jordan's king praised the pope and said the world must reject "ambitious ideologies of division."
"We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims," said Abdullah.
The pope was also met at the airport by diplomats and Muslim and Christian leaders. A Jordanian army band equipped with bagpipes and drums played the Vatican and Jordanian national anthems before the pope and the king inspected the honor guard.
Abdullah Abdul-Qader, a cleric at Amman's oldest mosque, told worshippers during Friday prayers to welcome the pope's visit.
"I urge you to show respect for your fellow Christians as they receive their church leader," said Abdul-Qader at the Al-Husseini mosque.
Christians make up 3 percent of Jordan's 5.8 million people.
Benedict's three-day stay in Jordan is his first visit to an Arab country as pope. During his time in the country, Benedict is scheduled to meet with Muslim religious leaders at Amman's largest mosque — his second visit to a Muslim place of worship since becoming pope in 2005. He prayed in Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque, a gesture that helped calm the outcry over his remarks.
The pope is also expected to meet Iraqi Christians driven from their homeland by violence. About 40 young Iraqi refugees crowded into a tiny Catholic church in Amman on Friday, nervously practicing their last lesson before Benedict administers their first communion on Sunday.
"I really want to meet the pope," said Cecile Adam, an 11-year-old whose family fled Baghdad. "I think he can do something to help Iraq because Jesus gave him a good position and Jesus wants us to be happy."
Associated Press Writers Jamal Halaby and Dale Gavlak contributed to this report.