(Reuters) — Pope Francis called for urgent steps to end Syria’s three-year-old civil war as he arrived in neighboring Jordan on Saturday, starting a Middle East trip aimed at bringing hope to the region’s dwindling Christian population.
Addressing Jordan’s King Abdullah on his first visit as pope to the Holy Land, Francis praised the Western-backed kingdom for its efforts to “to seek lasting peace for the entire region”.
“This great 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,” he said, departing from his prepared text to describe the king as “an artisan for peace”.
More than 160,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict and millions have fled to neighboring countries, including Jordan. The refugees are from all faiths, but Christians feel threatened by radical Sunni Muslims now leading the military insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
After meeting King Abdullah, Francis held a Mass in an Amman stadium and was later due to meet some of those Syrian refugees in Bethany on the Jordan, the place where according to tradition Jesus was baptized, as well as others who fled violence in Iraq.
Conflict across the region, including the Arab revolts of recent years and the civil war in Syria, has accelerated a historic decline in its Christian community.
While local worshippers hoped Francis would use his fleeting visit to call attention to their plight, they doubted he could do much to help just weeks after the collapse of the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In Israel and the occupied West Bank, where the pope will travel on Sunday and Monday, more Palestinian Christians are looking to leave, accusing Israel of eroding their economic prospects and hobbling their freedom of movement.
The Jewish state denies discriminating against its Arab citizens and cites security reasons for curbs on Palestinians’ movement in the West Bank.
Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, will also use the trip to appeal to members of all religions to work together for peace.
“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.
Abdullah, whose Hashemite family traces its descent from the Prophet Mohammad, said Islam was a religion of harmony, mercy and justice, and that Jordan had worked to reject “the false claims of those who spread hatred and sow division.
“…Let me say, forthrightly, that Arab Christian communities are an integral part of the Middle East,” he said.
At the Jordanian stadium where Francis delivered the Mass, an enthusiastic crowd of around 20,000 endured high heat to listen to the pope speak from a platform shaded by a canopy in the yellow and white colors of the Vatican, and flanked by pictures of the pope and the king.
But alongside their celebrations, some expressed fears for their future in a region where Christianity is rooted.
Thamer Boulus, a 45-year-old Iraqi teacher, said he fled the city of Mosul with his family because he was receiving death threats as a Christian. “I want to immigrate anywhere there is safety for me and my family. Religious extremism is threatening Christians,” he said.
Ahead of his visit, the Vatican said Francis wanted to travel in a normal car and would eschew bulletproof vehicles. He traveled from the airport in a modest white car and arrived at the stadium on the back of an open-topped vehicle.
On Sunday morning Francis flies by helicopter to Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, making a six-hour visit to what the Vatican’s official program calls “the State of Palestine,” a terminology Israel rejects.
In 2012, the Vatican angered Israel by supporting a vote in the United Nations General Assembly to grant Palestinians de facto statehood recognition. Israel argues such a move should only come through negotiations.
Palestinians regard the pope’s 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. Jordan, a majority of whose population is of Palestinian origin, signed a peace accord with Israel 20 years ago.
To underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region and help to tackle the political stalemate, Francis has enlisted a rabbi and an Islamic leader to be part of a traveling papal delegation for the first time.
Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, will head on to Israel on Sunday night for a 32-hour visit packed with 16 events.
Threats to Christians have been scrawled by suspected Jewish radicals on Church property in the Holy Land. One read: “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel.”
This story "Pope Francis Kicks Off Middle East Visit Fraught With Danger for Israel" was written by Philip Pullella and Suleiman Al-Khalidi.