AMMAN (AFP) – Pope Benedict XVI called on Saturday for reconciliation between Christians and Jews, a day after stressing his "deep respect" for Islam on his first trip to the Holy Land as pontiff.

Pope Benedict XVI and Jordan's King Abdullah II
"The ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the holy places also reminds us of the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people," Benedict said at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed the Promised Land to Moses.

"May our encounter today inspire in us a renewed love for the canon of sacred scripture and a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews in mutual respect and cooperation," the pontiff added on the slopes of the windswept mountain.

The 840-metre (2,800-feet) peak of Mount Nebo, some 40 kilometres (24 miles) southwest of the Jordanian capital Amman, is holy to all three religions due to the tradition of Moses.

The 82-year-old head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics was later Saturday to meet Muslim leaders in Amman as he presses inter-faith fence-mending on his first visit to an Arab country.

On arrival in the kingdom on Friday, the pontiff said he came "as a pilgrim, to venerate holy places that have played such an important part in some of the key events of Biblical history."

But he also told journalists that inter-faith dialogue was "very important for peace," adding: The Church "is not a political force but a spiritual force which can contribute to the progress of the peace process" in the Middle East.

As he began his tour the pope said it gave him "a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community," and he also called religious freedom "a fundamental human right."

The palace said that at a meeting at the royal offices the king and pope "stressed the need to continue and deepen Muslim-Christian dialogue and coexistence."

Christian-Islamic ties were strained worldwide after the pope in 2006 quoted a mediaeval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

The pontiff apologised later for the "unfortunate misunderstanding."

Ahead of his visit, Jordan's opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF) said the pope was not welcome unless he apologised for his remarks, which it says targeted Islam.

King Abdullah on Friday stressed the "importance of co-existence and harmony between Muslim and Christian," and warned that "voices of provocation, ambitious ideologies of division, threaten unspeakable suffering."

"We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims... It is my hope that together we can expand the dialogue we have opened," he told the pope.

Christians in Jordan number around 200,000 in a total population of about six million.

On Monday, the pope will begin the second stage of his trip by flying to Israel where he is also expected to engage in building bridges between the faiths.

In recent months, Israel and the Vatican have clashed over the papal decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson of Britain, and over moves to beatify Pope Pius XII.

Israel reviles Pius for what it perceives as his passive stance during the Holocaust in World War II.

The Coalition for Jerusalem, an alliance of Palestinian advocacy groups, on Thursday urged the pope in an open letter to denounce what they called "yet another wave of Israel's ethnic cleansing crimes" against their people.

But the pope is unlikely to want to further strain relations with Israel and his comments at Mount Nebo on Saturday indicate he intends to put the focus firmly on building bridges during his Holy Land tour.