AMMAN – Pope Francis urged respect for religious freedom in the Middle East on Saturday and an end to persecution of Christians, saying they were “full citizens” with a right to be in the region.
“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.
“Christians consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens.”
The pope also thanked Jordanian King Abdullah II, his wife Queen Rania, and the Jordanian people on Saturday for welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, calling for an “urgent,” peaceful solution to the conflict in the neighboring nation. In his palace speech, Francis said Jordan’s “generous welcome” to Syrian refugees warranted international appreciation and support.
Pope Francis arrived in Jordan early Saturday afternoon to embark on a Middle East tour aimed at boosting ties with Muslims and Jews as well as easing an age-old rift within Christianity.
The pope’s plane, which took off from Rome early Saturday morning, landed safely at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman.
On the flight, the pope told journalists that the trip would be “challenging,” but rewarding.
The 77-year-old pope said he felt like the Biblical prophet Daniel heading to the lions’ den.
“I feel like Daniel, but now I know that the lions don’t bite,” he said, a reference to his visit to a region roiled by political and religious division.
“My heart beats and is looking to love,” he said.
Despite a cold and fatigue that forced him to cancel some recent appointments, Francis seemed in fine health on the flight and greeted each of the reporters traveling with him one-by-one, even posing for a “selfie” photograph.
Upon landing in Amman, the pontiff smiled as he walked down the steps from his plane and was greeted by a military salute as he shook hands with political and religious dignitaries, before receiving bouquets of flowers from two children dressed in traditional Jordanian costume.
From the airport, the pope was whisked off to meet with the king and queen.
As his white car drove through the streets towards the royal palace, well-wishers waved Jordanian and Vatican flags and held up banners welcoming him, under the watchful eye of security guards.
Later Saturday, he was then due to celebrate his first mass in the region at a stadium in the Jordanian capital before meeting Syrian refugees on the banks of the River Jordan, where Christians believe Jesus was baptized.
The Vatican has billed Francis’ first visit to a region roiled by religious and political differences as a “pilgrimage of prayer,” saying the pope will shun bulletproof vehicles in favor of open-top cars despite security concerns.
Israeli authorities have moved to lessen the possibility of trouble by ordering 15 right-wing Jewish activists to stay away from places being visited by the pope, after a string of hate attacks on Christian sites.
“It will be a purely religious trip,” the pope told pilgrims at his last general audience in St Peter’s Square before a three-day visit that takes him to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Francis said the main reasons for the trip were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I and “to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much”.
A joint prayer service with Bartholomew Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — venerated as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — is seen by the Vatican as the highlight of the visit.
The meeting is fitting, given that Francis has made the ideal of unity of the Christian Churches, one of the priorities of his papacy.
The pontiff will also meet Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
President Shimon Peres, in an interview with French daily Le Figaro, said he attached “great importance” to the pope’s trip, calling Francis “a man of noble humility.”
“I don’t think the visit is going to bring the signing of a peace deal tomorrow, or even the organisation of a conference, but I am sure that it will make a substantial contribution because the pope respects all cultures and all religions,” he said.
The 77-year-old Argentine pope has already set the tone for a trip rich in symbolism by inviting two old friends from Buenos Aires to join him, Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud.
Earlier Saturday, cheering Jordanian Christians piled onto buses from churches across the country on Saturday, heading for an Amman stadium where Pope Francis will celebrate the first mass of a Middle East tour.
“We are thrilled the pope is coming. He will bring love and peace for the Arab world,” said Sister Rachel, 77, dressed in her best habit.
“We are already singing for him to become a saint,” she told AFP, adding that seven buses would be leaving from churches in the hill town of Mataba alone.
In the stadium, which can fit up to 30,000 people, thousands of blue and red chairs were laid out in front of a large altar, behind which hung photographs of John Paul II and John XXIII, who were made saints by Francis this month.
Christian refugees from Syria, Palestine and Iraq will attend the mass, during which some 1,400 children will receive their first communion.
“This is huge, I’m so excited Pope Francis is coming. We’re really going to make him feel welcome,” said Veronica Moutaame, as groups began gathering under a huge banner of a smiling Francis with King Abdullah II outside the stadium.
“This is a historic visit, we’re really proud to have him here,” said Michel Haddad, who was being joined later by his wife and two young children.
Sister Rachel, who will have seen all four popes to have visited Jordan — Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis — said the Argentinian’s presence was especially important because of his dedication to the downtrodden.
“This pope is special. He only wants to see the poor and the diseased. He is the protector of the helpless,” she said.