Pope Benedict XVI underlined his "deep respect" for Islam on Friday in Jordan, on his first trip as pontiff to an Arab state, and stressed that religious freedom is a fundamental human right.
He also called the church a spiritual force that could contribute to progress in bringing about peace in the Middle East.
Speaking after a red carpet welcome from King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at Queen Alia Airport as he began his eight-day tour of the Holy Land amid strict security, the pope said he came to Jordan "as a pilgrim."
He said his visit "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."
The pope also called religious freedom "a fundamental human right."
"It is my fervent hope and prayer that respect for the inalienable rights and dignity of every man and woman will come to be increasingly affirmed and defended, not only throughout the Middle East, but in every part of the world," he said.
En route to Amman, the pope told journalists that inter-faith dialogue is "very important for peace and so that everyone can follow the tenets of their faith."
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, he said.
Queen Rania said in a message posted on the Internet social network Twitter: "Just listened to Pope's speech. Our region so needs a message of Peace." Her office said she registered on http://twitter.com/QueenRania to mark the visit.
Jordan's opposition Islamic Action Front party said earlier this week the pope was not welcome unless he apologized for remarks he made in 2006, which it says targeted Islam.
In a speech the pope had quoted a mediaeval Christian emperor who criticized some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman." He apologized later for the "unfortunate misunderstanding."
Welcoming the pope, King Abdullah urged an expansion of Christian-Muslim dialogue to dispel "divisions."
The monarch 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," the king said.
First Holy Land trip
Benedict's first stop was the Regina Pacis center for the handicapped in Amman where the crowd sang songs in Arabic and chanted "benvenuto," the Italian for "welcome."
"Friends, unlike the pilgrims of old, I do not come bearing gifts or offerings. I come simply with an intention, a hope, to pray for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East," the pope said.
Christians in Jordan number around 200,000 of a total population of about six million.
Benedict saw his first Holy Land trip as pontiff as a pilgrimage.
"I come to Jordan as a pilgrim, to venerate holy places that have played such an important part in some of the key events of Biblical history," he said.
After Jordan he will visit Israel Monday, and will also go to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank Wednesday.
Some groups in the region said they expect more than platitudes from the 82-year-old head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, with the visit raising a daunting array of religious and political challenges.
On Saturday he was to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II in 2000 to Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed the Promised Land to Moses.
The papal visit will end with a prayer at Wadi Kharrar on the east bank of the River Jordan, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized, before he leaves for Tel Aviv.
Israel's ethnic cleansing
Israel will also roll out the red carpet as it seeks to rebuild its image following its December-January offensive against Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
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.
They have clashed over his decision to lift the excommunication of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson of Britain, and the sainthood dossier of Pope Pius XII, reviled by Israel for his stance during the Holocaust.