Pope Francis called for fresh peace talks on Syria on Saturday, urging all sides to swap arms for negotiations, and asked the international community to aid those fleeing the bloodshed.
The pope denounced arms dealers and appealed for an urgent end to the Syrian civil war as he began his three-day trip to the Middle East with an emotional meeting with refugees from Syria and Iraq who have fled to Jordan.
Francis deviated from his prepared remarks to make a strong plea for peace during his first day in Jordan, praying for God to “convert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons!”
The appeal came during a meeting with refugees, just moments after the pontiff bent down at the Jordan River, where some believe was the site of Jesus’ baptism, and touched the waters. And it capped an intense day at the start of his first visit as pope to the Holy Land.
“Vive il papa,” a group of schoolchildren waving Vatican flags shouted as the pope arrived earlier on Saturday at the royal palace for private talks with King Abdullah II, Queen Rania and their children.
Francis thanked Jordan for its “generous welcome” to Syrian refugees and called for an urgent resolution to the civil war next door.
“I urge the international community not to leave Jordan alone in the task of meeting the humanitarian emergency caused by the arrival of so great a number of refugees, but to continue and even increase its support and assistance.”
Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp for Syrians, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. It’s currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population, but Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.
Francis saw the refugee exodus first-hand, meeting with some 600 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.
Francis, who has frequently despaired over the plight of refugees, told them that he had wanted in particular to meet with them during his trip and issued a heartfelt plea for peace in their homeland.
“I pray once more that reason and restraint will prevail, and that with the help of the international community, Syria will rediscover the path of peace,” he said.
Francis touched on the theme of peace during an afternoon Mass at Amman’s windswept international stadium, urging the faithful to “put aside our grievances and divisions” for the sake of peace and unity.
Overhead, enormous blue balloons in the shape of a rosary, complete with a blue balloon crucifix, rose high into the sky.
“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 and youngsters who came up to him.
Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria’s population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s rule have fueled 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 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.
Earlier Saturday, Francis sent his good wishes to President Shimon Peres and to the Israeli people via his pilot as he flew to neighboring Jordan on Saturday to kick off his regional 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.”
“It will be a purely religious trip,” the pope told pilgrims at his last general audience in St Peter’s Square before the three-day visit.
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”.
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 were to attend the mass, during which some 1,400 children would receive their first communion.