Pope Francis on Saturday arrived in Jordan as he embarked on a three-day tour of the Middle East aimed at encouraging inter-religious dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians.
The Vatican has billed Francis' first visit to a region plagued by religious and political differences as a "pilgrimage of prayer," saying the pope will shun bullet-proof vehicles in favour of open-top cars despite security concerns.
Israeli authorities have moved to lessen the possibility of trouble by issuing restraining orders against 15 right-wing Jewish activists this week, ordering them to stay away from sites being visited by the pope, after a string of hate attacks on Christian sites.
Francis, who has made many appeals for peace in the Middle East since taking over the papacy last year, has said the main reasons for his trip is to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I – a key Orthodox leader – and "to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much".
That ceremony in which he will take part in a special joint prayer with Bartholomew on Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – venerated as the place of Jesus' crucifixion and contain the place where Jesus was buried – is seen by the Vatican as the highlight of the visit.
The meeting is fitting, given that Francis has made ecumenism, the ideal of unity of the Christian Churches, one of the priorities of his papacy.
He will also meet with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Rabbi and Islamic leader part of papal delegation
Israeli President Shimon Peres, in an interview with French daily Le Figaro, said he attached "great importance" to the pope's trip, calling Francis "a man of noble humility."
"I don't think the visit is going to bring the signing of a peace deal tomorrow, or even the organisation of a conference, but I am sure that it will make a substantial contribution because the pope respects all cultures and all religions," he added.
To underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region and help to tackle the political stalemate, Francis has enlisted a rabbi and an Islamic leader to be part of a travelling papal delegation for the first time.
The two - Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who wrote a book in 2010 with the future pope on inter-faith dialogue, and Omar Abboud, director of the Institute for Religious Dialogue in Buenos Aires - are friends from when Francis was cardinal in his native Argentina.
Their presence is “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the region, said the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
In Jordan, Francis will meet King Abdullah II, hold mass in a stadium in Amman and, on the banks of the River Jordan, hear first hand of the suffering of Syrian refugees, offering an opportunity for the pontiff to reiterate his calls for an end to the three-year war.
He is also expected to touch on a key concern of the Vatican, the forced migration of Christians from the Middle East.
"Because of the global popularity that Francis enjoys, if he comes to the Holy Land and says 'I have your back' it may mean something to Christians. The world is paying attention when Francis speaks, unlike Benedict. It may have a greater resonance," John Allen, Vatican expert for the Boston Globe, said.
A balanced trip
Early Sunday, the pope will make the short helicopter ride to Bethlehem where he will meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas before speaking to children from a Palestinian refugee camp and lunching with refugee families.
He will then fly to Tel Aviv where he will be greeted by President Peres before heading to Jerusalem.
On Monday, the pope will visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, visit Israel's national cemetery on Mount Herzl and go on to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
He is then set to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and celebrate mass in the Cenacle, the place where Christians believe Jesus held the last supper.
The pontiff will try to avoid political pitfalls in the sensitive region by dividing his visits equally between Jewish Israeli sites and Muslim or Christian landmarks in Palestinian territory.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-24