AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Francis denounced arms dealers and appealed Saturday 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.
“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.
In his remarks, Abdullah said 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 use his “humanity and wisdom” to help end the conflict in Syria and to encourage leaders to take the courageous steps needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“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,” he said.
For the refugees who were greeting Francis on Saturday, his presence in Jordan is a chance to show the world their plight as the Syrian conflict drags on.
“We are very happy because he will see Christians in the Arab world, he will see us and see our suffering,” said Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula who was to be among the 600 or so people to greet the pope at Bethany beyond the Jordan. “We wish that peace will be restored in the whole world, and in Syria.”
Francis has a packed schedule for the three-day visit. He will visit a Palestinian refugee camp on Sunday, when he travels from Amman directly to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It’s the first time a pope has landed in the West Bank rather than Tel Aviv first – a nod by the Vatican to the “Palestinian state.”
Technically, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem by their predecessors which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That highlight will come on Sunday, when Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Francis will spend Monday in Jerusalem, visiting the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel’s chief rabbis, albeit separately. He’ll also pray at the Western Wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.
The Vatican spokesman had suggested that with such a grueling schedule, Francis might not have the strength for an on-board press conference on the return flight from Israel on Monday night. Francis, 77, who has only one full lung and has battled a cold and fatigue that forced him to cancel some recent appointments, set the record straight at the start of the trip.
“One of you said a press conference wouldn’t be possible because this is a ‘deathly’ trip,” he told reporters. “But returning home, I intend to have one.”
He then greeted reporters one by one – and even posed for a “selfie.”