Amman - Pope Francis called for urgent steps to end Syria's three-year-old civil war as he arrived in neighbouring Jordan on Saturday, starting a Middle East trip aimed at bringing hope to the region's dwindling Christian population.
Addressing Jordan's King Abdullah on his first visit as pope to the Holy Land, Francis praised the Western-backed kingdom for its efforts to “to seek lasting peace for the entire region”.
“This great 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,” he said, departing from his prepared text to describe the king as “an artisan for peace”.
More than 160 000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict and millions have fled to neighbouring countries, including Jordan. The refugees are from all faiths, but Christians feel threatened by radical Sunni Muslims now leading the military insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
Francis was due to meet some of those Syrian refugees in Bethany on the Jordan, the place where according to tradition Jesus was baptised, as well as others who fled violence in Iraq.
Conflict across the Middle East, including the Arab revolts of recent years and the civil war in Syria, has accelerated a historic decline in the region's Christian population.
The pope will also travel to Israel and the occupied West Bank, where peace talks broke down two weeks ago and more Palestinian Christians are looking to leave, accusing Israel of eroding their economic prospects and restricting their movement.
Israel denies discriminating against its Arab citizens and cites security reasons for curbs on Palestinians' movement in the West Bank.
Francis, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, appealed for mutual tolerance between religions.
“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.
Abdullah, whose Hashemite family traces its descent from the Prophet Mohammad, said Islam was a religion of harmony, mercy and justice, and that Jordan had worked to reject “the false claims of those who spread hatred and sow division.
“...Let me say, forthrightly, that Arab Christian communities are an integral part of the Middle East,” he said.
Following his meeting with the monarch, Francis celebrated Mass in an Amman stadium where an enthusiastic crowd of around 20 000 endured the heat to listen to him speak from a platform shaded by a canopy in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican, and flanked by pictures of the pope and the king.
A Muslim call to prayer sounded out nearby as the pope concluded his homily, in which he stressed the need to work together to overcome divisions. “Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle,” he said.
Despite his plea, some expressed fears for their future in a region where Christianity is rooted.
Thamer Boulus, a 45-year-old Iraqi teacher, said he fled the city of Mosul with his family because he was receiving death threats as a Christian. “I want to immigrate anywhere there is safety for me and my family. Religious extremism is threatening Christians,” he said.
Playing down the issue of his own security, the Vatican said ahead of the visit that Francis wanted to travel in a normal car and would eschew bulletproof vehicles. He was driven from the airport in a modest white car and arrived at the stadium on the back of an open-topped vehicle.
On Sunday morning Francis flies by helicopter to Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, making a six-hour visit to what the Vatican's official programme calls “the State of Palestine,” a terminology Israel rejects.
In 2012, the Vatican angered Israel by supporting a vote in the United Nations General Assembly to grant Palestinians de facto statehood recognition. Israel argues such a move should only come through negotiations.
Palestinians regard the pope's visit, and the fact that he is flying in directly from Jordan instead of going through Israel's security barrier from Jerusalem, as a major morale boost. Jordan, a majority of whose population is of Palestinian origin, signed a peace accord with Israel 20 years ago.
Israeli officials say that strife with the growing Muslim populace is a significant factor in Palestinian Christian emigration. Some Christians acknowledge occasional friction, but say the main problem is the enduring Israeli occupation and the ways in which it blights everyday life.
Arab Christians living within the boundaries of Israel after its foundation in 1948 have fared much better than brethren in the adjacent occupied territories - their numbers rising from an initial 34 000 to some 125 000 today and their communities benefiting as Israel's open economy has flourished.
To underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region and help to tackle the political stalemate, Francis enlisted a rabbi and an Islamic leader to be part of a travelling papal delegation for the first time.