Pope Francis (L) sits in a golf cart with King Abdullah II of Jordan (R) as they visit Bethany, a site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan where some Christians believe Jesus was baptised, on May 24, 2014
Pope Francis (L) sits in a golf cart with King Abdullah II of Jordan (R) as they visit Bethany, a site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan where some Christians believe Jesus was baptised, on May 24, 2014 © Sami Khahman - AFP
Pope Francis (L) sits in a golf cart with King Abdullah II of Jordan (R) as they visit Bethany, a site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan where some Christians believe Jesus was baptised, on May 24, 2014
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Jean-Louis DE LA VAISSIERE, AFP
Last updated: May 24, 2014

Pope calls for Syria peace at start of Middle East tour

Pope Francis made an urgent plea Saturday 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.

As he walked off the plane onto a red carpet at Amman airport, his white robes flapping in the hot desert wind, he was greeted by officials and two children dressed in traditional costume who handed him bouquets of irises, the national flower of Jordan.

On a trip which continues Sunday in the Palestinian territories and Israel, Francis reserved his biggest public event for Jordan, an open-air mass at Amman's main international stadium where he was joyously welcomed by 40,000 pilgrims.

Entering the stadium in an open-topped white jeep, he smiled and waved at the crowds, his white skullcap flying off in the breeze.

Babies and toddlers were passed through the crowd to be held by him for a moment and blessed, as thousands of balloons were released into the air.

"Peace is not something which can be bought, it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives," he told the crowd packed into a sea of blue and red chairs on a sweltering May afternoon.

His landmark first visit to the Holy Land, billed by the Vatican as a "pilgrimage of prayer," is chiefly aimed at boosting ties with Muslims and Jews, as well as seeking closer unity with Orthodox Christian leaders.

- 'Humanity and wisdom' -

"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 on the banks of the River Jordan.

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 host countries like Jordan.

Abdullah himself drove the pontiff in a golf cart to the reputed site of Jesus' baptism on the River Jordan, chatting to the 77-year-old Francis squeezed in beside him, another sign of the pontiff's famed informality.

The pope stood for a few minutes in silent prayer on the riverbank, his head bowed, before being driven by the king, once again in the cart, to speak and pray with some of the 600,000 refugees hosted by Jordan and hear their accounts of suffering in Syria.

Speaking earlier, Francis urged respect for religious freedom in a region where the Holy See has 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.

Thousands of Christians around the world are killed every year because of their faith, and persecution has become more widespread in countries torn by conflicts involving radical Islamists, including Syria and Iraq.

Ahead of his arrival in a region roiled by political and religious division, the Argentine pope said he felt like the biblical prophet Daniel heading to the lions' den.

"I feel like Daniel, but now I know that the lions don't bite," he told reporters travelling with him on his plane.

- Open-topped tour -

At the stadium mass, he revelled in the raucous greeting of pilgrims as he toured the crowd in his open-topped vehicle, reaching out to grasp hands as people pressed around his slowly moving jeep on all sides, prompting scuffles with the security detail jogging alongside.

"This pope is special," said 77-year-old Sister Rachel, highlighting his dedication to the downtrodden.

"He only wants to see the poor and the diseased. He is the protector of the helpless."

The pope will take a short helicopter flight early on Sunday across the River Jordan to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus in the West Bank.

There he will hold a mass and begin his two-day tour of the Palestinian territories and Israel.

Francis said the main reason for his visit is a historic meeting in Jerusalem with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and "to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much".

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