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(Pope Francis is received by King Abdullah II of Jordan ahead of their meeting in Amman's Al Husseini Royal Palace, Jordan, Saturday, May 24, 2014. The pontiff is in Jordan on the first of a three day trip to the Middle East that will also take him to the West Bank and Israel. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, Pool) )
Pope’s Mideast tour generates hope in Utah faith communities
First Published May 24 2014 04:08 pm • Last Updated May 25 2014 11:45 am

Many Utah Muslims, Christians and Jews have more than a passing interest in the Middle East and Pope Francis’ historic tour there this weekend.

After all, the Beehive State is awash in these faiths, which trace their theological origins and end-time beliefs to common sites in Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem — the places where the Catholic leader is speaking, leading services and meeting people.

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"We all revere the same prophet, Abraham," says Shuaib Din, imam at Utah Islamic Center in Sandy. These faiths "may fight over the same spot but it is out of love, not hate, for that historic figure. The pope’s visit could be taken as a symbol of unity."

Din and other believers are hopeful that the charismatic Catholic’s presence might re-ignite the peace process for the warring factions.

"Pope Francis is a gifted spiritual leader with a great capacity for speaking the truth — even when it is hard to hear," says Maeera Shreiber, chairwoman of the Cross Cultural Jewish Studies Initiative at the University of Utah. "Even though his visit is of a religious nature rather than a diplomatic or political one, I hope and pray that he will inspire his audiences to listen carefully to his calls for peace, and that they will take it upon themselves to do more to heal the wounds and ruptures that afflict a miraculous part of the world."

It’s a chance for all Jews, not just those in Utah, she says, "to remember in a vivid and timely way that Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular is sacred to three world religions: Jews, Christians and Muslims."

Shreiber and others were pleased to see Francis taking along on the trip two longtime friends from Argentina — Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-authored with the pope a book about interfaith dialogue, and Sheikh Omar Abboud, who leads that South American country’s Muslim community.

"Rabbi Skorka is a wonderful spiritual leader in his own right — compassionate, resourceful and creative," Shreiber says. "What is wonderful about this journey is that Rabbi Skorka and the pope have a real ongoing relationship and so presumably they have thought hard about the meaning and potential impact of this visit for both of their respective faith communities; it is not just a fabricated moment shaped for and by the media."

And it could model interfaith dialogue for others, she says. "It may give us a chance to think more deeply about what Israel is and what it can be. And about what Christians and Jews, worldwide, can achieve through real interfaith dialogue."

Bishop John C. Wester, leader of the state’s 300,000 Catholics, echoes that sentiment.


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"I hope Pope Francis can be a reconciling presence, to listen and to bring the gospel message of God’s peace to these holy spots," Wester says. "But peace is not only the pope’s job or the president’s job. We are all called to be emissaries of peace."

During this trip, the pontiff also is bringing attention to the "devastating persecution of Christians" in that part of the world, Wester says. "Christians are being exiled, pushed out of their homes; churches are desecrated. A lot of this is being done to fanatics — you can’t pin it on one religion — but it is a real problem. All of us need to work together better to solve it."

On Saturday, Pope Francis was in Amman, Jordan, and spoke eloquently of the suffering in Syria during the three years of its raging civil war. According to some estimates, as many as 160,000 Syrians have been killed and more than 3 million displaced.

"What is happening is beyond imagination," says Mohammad Alsolaiman, a gastroenterologist in American Fork who is from Syria. "It is a humanitarian tragedy. There is no safe haven anywhere in the country."

Alsolaiman is grateful that the pope is focusing attention on the Syrian conflict and calling for an end to fighting.

"What he said is very appreciated all over the world," the Utah doctor says. "We should follow his recommendations. We need more people like him. Many good people need to speak up."

Indeed, this pope’s words carry weight beyond his own church, says Eric Huntsman, who teaches ancient Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University. "He has established himself as a moral force for all religions."

Having Muslim and Jewish friends as advisers, Huntsman says, Francis can reach out to Israeli and Palestinian people — not just politicians. And he can model how to build bridges among individuals.

He is often called the "people’s pope," says Huntsman, who taught biblical studies at the BYU Jerusalem Center during the 2011-2012 schoolyear, "who speaks about a church for the poor."

During this trip, the Holy Father has already met with refugees in Jordan.

Named after a Catholic saint whose ministry was to the outcasts and downtrodden, Francis "never seems to forget," the BYU professor says, "the people who are suffering."

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