Pope Francis arrives in Jordan Saturday at the start of a Middle East tour aiming to boost ties with Muslims and Jews as well as easing an age-old rift within Christianity itself.
The Vatican has billed Francis’ first visit to a region roiled by religious and political differences as a “pilgrimage of prayer,” saying the pontiff is to shun bulletproof vehicles in favor of open-top cars despite security concerns.
Israeli authorities have attempted to minimize the possibility of trouble by issuing restraining orders against 15 right-wing Jewish activists this week, ordering them to stay away from sites being visited by the pope, after a string of hate attacks on Christian sites.
“It will be a purely religious trip,” the pope told about 50,000 pilgrims at his final general audience in St Peter’s Square before his three-day visit that is to include Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Francis said the main reasons for the trip were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I — a key Orthodox leader — and “to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much.”
A special joint prayer with Bartholomew set for today in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — venerated by believers 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 ecumenism, the ideal of unity of the Christian Churches, one of the priorities of his papacy.
He also is to meet with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Israeli 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 organization of a conference, but I am sure that it will make a substantial contribution because the pope respects all cultures and all religions,” he added.
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.
In Jordan, Francis is to meet Jordanian King Abdullah II, hold mass in a stadium in Amman and, on the banks of the Jordan River, hear firsthand of the suffering of Syrian refugees, offering an opportunity for the pontiff to reiterate his calls for an end to the three-year war.
He is also expected to touch on a key concern of the Vatican, the forced migration of Christians from the Middle East.
“Because of the global popularity that Francis enjoys, if he comes to the Holy Land and says ‘I have your back’ it may mean something to Christians. The world is paying attention when Francis speaks, unlike Benedict. It may have a greater resonance,” John Allen, Vatican expert for the Boston Globe, told reporters.
Although just 250,000 Jordanians identify themselves as Christian in the Muslim country of seven million, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur said the visit would show the kingdom as an oasis of peace in a turbulent region of “blood, wars and repression.”
Francis is to pray on the banks of the Jordan River for the victims of the Syrian conflict and meet some the families among the 600,000 refugees who have sought shelter in Jordan.
Early today, the pope was expected to make the short helicopter ride to Bethlehem to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before chatting with children from a Palestinian refugee camp and having lunch with refugee families.
He then is to fly to Tel Aviv before heading to Jerusalem.
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