Pope begins visit to Holy Land, urges Syria peace

Pope Francis calls for urgent steps to end Syria's civil war as he starts a visit to the Holy Land

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Pope Francis called for urgent steps to end Syria's three-year-old civil war as he arrived in neighboring Jordan on Saturday, starting a Middle East trip aimed at bringing hope to the region's dwindling Christian population.

Addressing Jordan's King Abdullah on his first visit as pope to the Holy Land, Francis praised the Western-backed kingdom for its efforts to "to seek lasting peace for the entire region.”

"This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said, departing from his prepared text to describe the king as "an artisan for peace".

His plane touched down at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, where an honor guard, Catholic leaders and Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, King Abdullah II's chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs, met him on arrival, the Associated Press reported.

Pope Francis met for a moment with Prince Ghazi at the airport before entering a car and heading off to the king’s palace, flanked by a group of motorcycles. A small crowd of people waving Jordanian and Vatican flags cheered his convoy as he passed.

On the flight, the pope told journalists that the trip would be “challenging,” but rewarding.

“My heart beats and is looking to love,” he said, according to AP.

The visit seeks to bring hope to the region’s dwindling Christian population and appeal to members of all religions to work together for peace.

"This is not a protocol visit," Patriarch Louis Sako, Iraq's senior Churchman, told reporters in Amman on the eve of the visit, according to Reuters.

"This pope feels the pain of Christians and his arrival at this time as peoples of this region are going through conflict, killings and destruction is a message of common living. It's an appeal that everyone in this region should have the courage to review their positions, to get out of this suffocating crisis," he said.

The Christian population has been declining steadily across the Middle East for generations. The Arab revolts of the recent years, the civil war in Syria, and the rise of radical Islam are only accelerating the process.

In Israel and the occupied West Bank, more Palestinian Christians are looking to leave, blaming Israel for withering their economic prospects and hobbling their freedom of movement.

"We are waiting impatiently for a word of peace from the pope that will raise morale. People in the street are asking what message will the pope carry," Sako said.

After meeting King Abdullah and saying a Mass in an Amman stadium, the pontiff will meet refugees from Syria and Iraq in Bethany on the Jordan, the place where according to tradition Jesus was baptized.

On Sunday morning Francis, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. flies by helicopter to Bethlehem, making a six-hour visit to what the Vatican's official program calls "the State of Palestine," a terminology Israel rejects.

There has been high security plans arranged for the pope.

Beside the Royal Guards in Jordan, there will be “more than 500 security personnel” deployed, another security source said.

In Bethlehem, where he arrives early Sunday, his movements will be secured by around 3,000 members of the Palestinian security forces who will be deployed in three concentric circles, the innermost composed of rooftop sharpshooters.
A third of that number would be from the elite presidential guard of Mahmoud Abbas, guard spokesman Gassan Nimr told AFP.

When he gets to Jerusalem after an official welcome at Tel Aviv airport, more than 8,000 police will be deployed in and around the city, among them special and undercover units, a spokesman said.

In the Old City, where Francis is to meet Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, there are 320 security cameras.

Lebanon's Maronite patriarch is to become the first head of his church to visit Jerusalem as he joins Pope Francis on the Holy Land tour.

“The pope is going to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. He is going to the diocese of the patriarch, so it's normal that the patriarch should welcome him,” Beshara Rai told AFP by telephone from France, dismissing any political significance.

Rai's visit is diplomatically noteworthy because Lebanon remains technically at war with Israel and bans its citizens from entering the Jewish state.

Maronite clergy are able to travel to the Holy Land to minister to the faithful there, but all other Lebanese are banned.

Rai insisted that the trip will be strictly religious and has no political significance.

"It is a religious visit and in no way a political one."

(With Reuters, AP and AFP)

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