Pope says Middle East trip will be ‘purely religious’

The pope's visit to Amman, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem kicks off on Saturday

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Pope Francis on Wednesday said his upcoming trip to the Middle East would be “purely religious” and aimed mainly at improving relations with other branches of Christianity and praying for peace in the region.

“It will be a purely religious trip,” the Argentine pope told some 50,000 pilgrims at a general audience in St Peter's Square ahead of three-day trip to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories starting on Saturday.

Francis said the main reasons for the trip -- billed a “pilgrimage of prayer” by the Vatican -- were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and “to pray for peace in that land which has suffered so much”.

The visit kicks off on Saturday when Francis flies to Amman and meets Syrian refugees. He will then travel on to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, wrapping up the visit on Monday with a mass in the place where Christians believe Jesus had the last supper with his disciples.

Francis will meet with all the main Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders but only briefly and there has been opposition from ultra-orthodox Jews over perceived Vatican designs on holy sites in Jerusalem.

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