Pope starts historic visit with call for peace in Syria

Head of the Catholic Church calls for peaceful end to civil war and a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims upon his arrival at the Amman stadium on Saturday.  Patrick Baz / AFP
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AMMAN // Pope Francis called on Saturday for an “urgent” end to the Syrian civil war and lamented the refugee crisis it has spawned as he opened a three-day trip to the Middle East.

During his first stop in Jordan, Francis also urged greater religious rights for minority Christians across the region, thanking King Abdullah II for encouraging a “climate of serene coexistence” between Christians and Muslims.

“Religious freedom is in fact a fundamental human right and I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world,” he said in an opening speech to King Abdullah and Jordan’s religious and political leaders.

The 77-year-old head of the Catholic Church was met at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, by an honour guard, Catholic leaders and Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, the king’s chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs. He immediately headed to the king’s palace.

In his speech at the palace, where Francis met King Abdullah, Queen Rania and their children, he said Jordan’s “generous welcome” to Syrian refugees warranted international appreciation and support.

Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp for Syrians who fled the civil war at home, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. Jordan is currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 per cent of its population, but Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.

“I thank the authorities of the kingdom for all they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region,” Francis said. “This goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Francis returned to the theme of peace during Mass at Amman’s windswept international stadium, urging the faithful to “put aside our grievances and divisions” for the sake of peace and unity.

“Peace isn’t something which can be bought; it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives,” he said.

The crowd, which the Vatican had estimated could exceed 25,000, gave him a warm welcome as he zipped around the stadium in his open-topped car, kissing children who were held up to him.

The pope was scheduled to see first-hand the plight of displaced Syrians in a meeting with about 600 refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus’s baptism.

Christians make up about 5 per cent of Syria’s population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting president Bashar Al Assad’s rule have fuelled fears among the country’s religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt.

Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Mr Al Assad.

Francis and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the region, insisting recently: “We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!”

On Saturday, Francis sought to encourage those who had decided to remain, lauding Jordan for welcoming in refugees and ensuring all Christians in the kingdom could freely profess their faith.

In his opening remarks, King Abdullah said Christian communities were an “integral part” of the Middle East and that he had sought to uphold “the true spirit of Islam, the Islam of peace”, which extends to protecting holy sites for Christians and Muslims alike.

He urged the pope to use his “humanity and wisdom” to help end the conflict in Syria and to encourage leaders to take the courageous steps needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The status-quo of ‘justice denied’ to the Palestinians; fear of the other; fear of change; these are the way to mutual ruin, not mutual respect,” he said.

For the refugees who were to meet the pope, his presence in Jordan was a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the conflict drags on.

“We are very happy because he will see Christians in the Arab world, he will see us and see our suffering,” said Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula. “We wish that peace will be restored in the whole world, and in Syria.”

Francis will also visit a Palestinian refugee camp on Sunday when he travels from Amman to the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Technically, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem by their predecessors which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement.

Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I will preside over a joint prayer service on Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

The pope will spend Monday in Jerusalem, visiting the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel’s chief rabbis, albeit separately. He will also pray at the Western Wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.

* Associated Press