Pope opens Mideast trip lamenting Syrian conflict

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 24 2014 12:03 p.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, May 24 2014 12:03 p.m. MDT

In this photo provided by the Jordanian Royal Palace, Jordan's King Abdullah II, center right, with his wife Queen Rania, standing behind him, talks with Pope Francis as their four children listen at the royal palace in Amman, Jordan, Saturday, May 24, 2014.

Yousef Allan, Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan — Pope Francis called on Saturday for an "urgent" end to the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis it has spawned as he opened a three-day trip to the Middle East.

During his first stop in Jordan, Francis also urged greater Christian-Muslim coexistence across the region, thanking King Abdullah II for encouraging a "climate of serene coexistence" among people of different faiths.

"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 in an opening speech to Abdullah and Jordan's religious and political leaders.

Francis' plane touched down at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, where he was met by an honor guard, Catholic leaders and Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, the king's chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs. He immediately headed to the king's palace in a simple, four-door sedan, a group of motorcycles riding alongside him. Small groups of people waving Jordanian and Vatican flags cheered him as he passed.

At the palace, Francis met with Abdullah, Queen Rania and their children. In his palace speech, Francis said Jordan's "generous welcome" to Syrian refugees warranted international appreciation and support.

Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp for Syrians who fled the civil war at home, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. Jordan is 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.

"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."

Francis returned to the theme of peace during Mass at Amman's windswept international stadium, urging the faithful to "put aside our grievances and divisions" for the sake of peace and unity.

"Let us ask the spirit to prepare our hearts to encounter our brothers and sisters so that we may overcome our differences rooted in political thinking, language, culture and religion," 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 who were held up to him.

Later Saturday, the pope was to see first-hand the plight of Syrian refugees when he meets with some 600 refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus' baptism.

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 has frequently lamented the plight of refugees, denouncing the "globalization of indifference" that often greets them in their newly adopted homelands. At the same time, he and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the Holy Land, insisting recently: "We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!"

King Abdullah referred to Christian-Muslim coexistence in his remarks, saying Christian communities were an "integral part" of the Middle East and that he had sought to uphold "the true spirit of Islam, the Islam of peace," which extends to protecting holy sites for Christians and Muslims alike. He urged the pope to help end the conflict in Syria and to encourage leaders to take the courageous steps needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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