Crowds welcome Pope Francis to Jordan at start of Holy Land trip

Crowds welcome Pope Francis to Jordan at start of Holy Land trip

Credit: Getty Images

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MAY 23: (ISRAEL OUT) A general view of the Christain Information Center where a large banner welcoming Pope Francis to the Holy Land hangs on May 23, 2014 in Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to the Holy Land as pontiff and will visit both the West Bank and Israel this coming Sunday. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)


by CNN

Posted on May 24, 2014 at 8:02 AM

(CNN) -- Crowds of supporters waved and cheered as Pope Francis arrived to celebrate Mass at a stadium in Jordan on Saturday, on the first leg of a Holy Land trip that is intended to promote a message of unity.

His trip has been billed as a “pilgrimage for prayer,” with its roots in faith, not politics.

But in a region where religion and politics are so closely intertwined, his every remark will take on an added significance.

Thousands of faithful packed the International Stadium in Amman for Saturday’s Mass, in what is a majority Muslim nation with a significant Christian community.

Small groups of cheering supporters earlier lined the road, waving flags and chanting “Long live the pope,” as Francis’ motorcade left the airport in Jordan’s capital, Amman, at the start of his three-day visit to the region.

The pope’s first stop was at al-Husseini Royal Palace in Amman, where he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

In televised remarks after that meeting, Francis paid tribute to Jordan’s efforts to promote interfaith tolerance and to the welcome the small nation has given to Palestinian refugees and, more recently, those fleeing war-torn Syria.

Francis said it was “necessary and urgent” that a peaceful solution was found to the crisis in Syria.

He also called for a “right solution with regard to the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.” Middle East peace talks recently stalled despite high-profile efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to push them forward.

“I grasp this opportunity to renew my esteem and respect for the Muslim community and show my appreciation for the work carried out by his Majesty the King, which is promoting further understanding between peoples of different faith and communities of different faith,” Francis said.

The Holy Land trip, also taking in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, is the first for Francis as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and just the fourth for any pontiff in the modern era.

It marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark meeting between Pope Paul VI and the then-spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Athenagoras, in Jerusalem.

Landmark meeting

While in Jordan, Francis will greet some of the 600,000 Syrians that have fled since the start of the civil war in 2011, as well as refugees from Iraq. He will also visit the River Jordan, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.

Accompanying Francis on his trip are Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book with the pontiff, and Sheikh Omar Abboud, who leads Argentina’s Muslim community.

The religion of the pope’s traveling companions, both of whom hail from his home country, Argentina, is no coincidence.

“It’s highly symbolic, of course,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.

“But it also sends a pragmatic message to Muslims, Christians and Jews that it’s possible to work together—not as a system of checks and balances but as friends.”

In Bethlehem, Frances will greet children from refugee camps, celebrate Mass in Manger Square, lunch with Palestinian families, and visit the site of Jesus’ birth. The pope is expected to call for a Palestinian state, which has long been Vatican policy.

And in Jerusalem, the pontiff will meet the city’s grand mufti and chief rabbis, visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, a memorial to the Holocaust, and lay a wreath on the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He will also celebrate Mass at the site of the Last Supper.

Francis will meet with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem, and with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres while in Jerusalem.