Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Jordan at start of Middle East visit

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Pope Francis arrived in Jordan at the start of a three-day visit to the Middle East. He was welcomed by King Abdullah and gave a speech at the royal palace.

The speech focussed on the need for an urgent solution to the Syrian conflict and more respect for religious freedom, “a fundamental human right” as he described it. The pope also praised Jordan for its generous welcome to Syrian refugees.

Pope Francis went on to celebrate Mass at an Amman stadium, after which he met with Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Bethany on the Jordan, the place where Jesus was baptised.

“This is not a protocol visit,” Patriarch Louis Sako, Iraq’s senior Churchman, said in Amman on the eve of the visit.

“This pope feels the pain of Christians and his arrival at this time as the people of this region are going through conflict, killings and destruction is a message of common living. It’s an appeal that everyone in this region should have the courage to review their positions, to get out of this suffocating crisis,” he said.

Pope Francis leads his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican (photo: Reuters)

Tomorrow morning the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics will fly to Bethlehem in the West Bank, making a six-hour visit to what the Vatican’s official programme calls “the State of Palestine,” a terminology Israel rejects. Pope Francis will preside over Sunday Mass in Manger Square, near the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Palestinians see Pope Francis’ visit, and the fact that he is flying in directly from Jordan instead of going through Israel’s security barrier from Jerusalem, as a major morale boost.

The Pope is accompanied by a rabbi and an imam — friends from his native Argentina — in a bid to underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region.

The Middle East visit comes right after the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. The timing led many to expect that the Pope will use his influence to ease tensions in the region. In Jordan, however, the Pope’s visit comes weeks after the kingdom opened a new refugee camp that can accommodate 130,000 Syrian refugees. According to UN reports, Jordan is already host to 600,000 Syrians who fled the conflict.

Pope Francis’ journey marks the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Athenagoras.

The meeting ended 900 years of separation and enduring antagonism between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.