Pope Francis has made an urgent plea for peace in war-torn Syria as he kicked off a three-day pilgrimage to the Middle East.
And he called for religious freedom to be upheld throughout a region ravaged by war and bloodshed, where a dwindling Christian population faces daily persecution.
After arriving to a red carpet welcome at Amman airport on Saturday he was later in the day to celebrate an afternoon mass in front of thousands of people at a stadium in the city.
The Pope’s three-day tour will also take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories on a landmark first visit aimed at boosting ties with Muslims and Jews.
“Lasting peace for the entire region … requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the Pope said at the royal palace, ahead of a meeting with Syrian refugees.
Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011, is estimated to have claimed at least 162,000 lives and forced another 2.7 million people to flee to neighbouring countries, 450,000 of them Christians.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II told Francis his “humanity and wisdom” could contribute to easing the crisis confronting Syrian refugees and the burden on hosts countries like Jordan.
As his white car drove through the streets towards the royal palace, well-wishers waved Jordanian and Vatican flags and held up banners welcoming him, under the watchful eye of security guards.
Later on Saturday, Francis was to head to a site on the River Jordan where many believe Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. There he will hear first-hand accounts of the suffering in Syria from some of the 600,000 refugees hosted by Jordan.
The 77-year-old pontiff also urged respect for religious freedom in a region where the Holy See called for an end to the ongoing persecution of Christians.
“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.
Although Christians were a minority within the region, their contribution was “significant and valued,” he said.
Entering Amman’s main stadium on open-topped white jeep, Francis was met by raucous applause as he smiled and waved at the crowds, his white skullcap flying off in the breeze.
“This pope is special. He only wants to see the poor and the diseased. He is the protector of the helpless,” said 77-year-old Sister Rachel, highlighting his dedication to the downtrodden.
Early on Sunday, the pope will make a short helicopter ride across the Jordan River to Bethlehem, where he will begin a two-day visit to the Palestinian territories and Israel.