Following Pope Francis’s mid-flight message of good wishes to President Shimon Peres and the people of Israel while en route to Jordan on Saturday, Peres reciprocated with a message of his own, telling the pope that Israel will receive him “with love and appreciation, as a pope who builds bridges of peace between religions,” Israel Radio reported.
Peres is set to welcome the pontiff on Sunday afternoon at a ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior religious leaders.
Earlier Saturday, Pope Francis sent his good wishes to Peres and to the Israeli people via his pilot as he flew to neighboring Jordan to kick off his regional “pilgrimage of prayer” tour.
“I send good wishes to you and all the people of Israel. I look forward to meeting with you and visiting the Holy Land,” the pope told Peres, as relayed to his pilot when they overflew Israel.
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. On Sunday, he will visit the Palestinian territories before heading on to Israel.
Francis 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.
In Amman earlier Saturday, Francis urged respect for religious freedom in the Middle East 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.
“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.”
“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,” said the pontiff.
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.
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.