AMMAN, Jordan — Pope Francis called “urgently” on Saturday for a “peaceful solution” to the Syrian crisis and a “just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he started a three-day sojourn through the Holy Land at a time of regional turmoil and tension.
Reiterating a theme of his 15-month-old papacy, Francis praised Jordan for providing a “generous welcome” to refugees from “neighboring Syria, ravaged by a conflict which has lasted all too long.” He expressed “deep regret” for the “continuing grave tensions in the Middle East,” and, detouring from his prepared remarks, said, “May God protect us from the fear of change.”
The pope spoke to about 200 invited guests – many of them Christian dignitaries in elaborate costume – at the royal palace at an afternoon welcome ceremony. King Abdullah II told the pope his “humanity and wisdom can make a special contribution” to helping Jordan and other countries where Syrian refugees have settled, as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
“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,” the king said. “Together, we can help leaders on both sides take the courageous steps needed, for peace, justice and coexistence.”
Abdullah spoke repeatedly about the collaborations and historic connections between Muslims and Christians, saying that they are neighbors and that they together make up “more than half of humanity.” He did not mention Jews. The pontiff, in contrast, spoke about all three monotheistic religions, calling Jordan a “land so rich in history and with such great religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Francis is the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land, making what he described as a “strictly religious” pilgrimage that is focused on a meeting Sunday with the Patriarch of Constantinople to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation. But the itinerary is laced with political minefields, particularly given last month’s collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the raging Syrian civil war.
On Sunday morning, Francis is to become the first pope to travel directly from Jordan to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He will meet President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority as a peer head of state, underscoring the Vatican’s support for the 2012 United Nations resolution upgrading the Palestinians’ status. Palestinians have trumpeted the visit to the “State of Palestine,” as the Vatican website also describes it, and will use Francis’s time in Bethlehem to highlight hardships under Israeli occupation.
Francis will also be the first pontiff to lay a wreath on the grave of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, a boon to Israelis more than a century after Pope Pius X harshly rejected Herzl’s appeal for support. And on Monday, he is to say Mass on Mount Zion, claimed as both the site of the Last Supper and the tomb of King David, a plan that has ignited anti-Christian graffiti and protests from religious Jews.
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AdvertisementHere in Jordan, where the pope had his largest public audience about 15,000 people attending a two-hour Mass at a soccer stadium — the landscape is less fraught. The palace hopes the visit will focus the world’s attention on the influx of more than 600,000 Syrian war refugees, which has overwhelmed Jordanian cities and strained water, health and educational resources. Jordan is also counting on his sunset prayers at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where some believe Jesus was baptized, to help a lagging tourism industry.
About 90,000 pilgrims visited Bethany last year, compared with 430,000 who stopped at an Israeli park on the other side of Jordan River that offers a rival claim as the baptism site described in the New Testament. Francis is the third pope to visit Bethany, and the Jordanians are promoting a website filled with biblical, archaeological and other evidence that theirs is the authentic spot.
The trip is both a showcase and a test for Francis, 77, who has so far thrilled the faithful with his humility, warmth and disregard for Vatican formality. His popularity began practically before the white smoke declaring his election had cleared, when he greeted throngs in St. Peter’s Square with a simple “good evening.” He has shunned gilded vestments and fancy shoes, flummoxed guardians of Vatican protocol with off-the-cuff remarks and impromptu personal phone calls. He lives in modest quarters and on this trip refused armored vehicles and brought a trimmed-down entourage.
Francis, who chose his name to focus attention on the plight of the poor, shocked the Roman Catholic world with a September interview in which he said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. While he has not changed church doctrine, he has transformed the tone, asking, “Who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuality.
Refugees have been a particular concern of the pope. His first official trip was to the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, a gateway to Europe for thousands of desperate asylum seekers. He later suggested empty church buildings could house refugees, and visited a Rome refugee center, where he spoke with a Syrian family.
Francis, who was scheduled to meet Saturday evening with several hundred refugee children from Syria and Iraq, has decried the “globalization of indifference” to the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria, but also refused to resign himself to the flight of Christians from the Middle East.
Shamon Bahnan, who fled Syria with his wife and son in October and has been staying at a church in downtown Amman, welcomed the pope’s visit but worried that he might publicly urge Christians to stay in the region.
“That will ruin it for us,” said Mr. Bahnan, 60, who hopes to emigrate to Sweden or Belgium. “European countries will close their doors on us. I can’t stay living in these conditions and I can’t go back.”
At the stadium in Amman, thousands of refugees, Jordanians, and pilgrims from Europe listened to Christian music as they awaited the pontiff’s arrival on a stage festooned in yellow and white fabric, the Vatican colors. Some 1,200 schoolchildren were to take their first communion, including Jude Handal, 10, who said, “the Pope is the King of all Christians.” Francesca Osbaldeston, 64, a retired teacher, said she and a friend had traveled from England “to tell the Christians of the Middle East we haven’t forgotten them.”
Juliana Muni, 27, an Iraqi Chaldean who came to Jordan six months ago with her three children, said, “Christians are the first to pay the price of instability.”