By Francis X. Rocca
AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Pope Francis began a densely packed visit to the Holy Land with a call for religious freedom in the Middle East, including respect for the right to change one’s religion.
“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,” the pope said May 24 in a speech to local dignitaries shortly after his arrival in Jordan.
Starting his fast-paced three-day visit, which was scheduled to take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pope said Jordanian Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population, “are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom,” and he thanked Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the country’s Muslim community for their support of interreligious dialogue with Christians and Jews.
A number of Middle Eastern governments, however, prohibit or restrict the practice of any religion besides Islam.
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis said the right to religious freedom necessarily includes the “freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.”
The pope also paid tribute to Jordan’s “generous welcome” to Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. An estimated 1.3 million refugees now live in Jordan, alongside a permanent population of 6.4 million.
The pope was scheduled to meet with young refugees later in the day, following a visit to a possible site of Jesus’ baptism near the Jordan River. Pope Francis has underscored the plight of refugees throughout his pontificate and called with particular urgency for an end to the Syrian civil war, which has displaced millions, inside and outside the country, since 2011.
The pope addressed Jordanian authorities following a private meeting with King Abdullah in the royal palace.
In his welcoming remarks to the pope, the king deplored the “terrible cost of sectarian and interreligious conflict” and said “Arab Christians are an integral part of the Middle East.”
The king also spoke of the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying the “status quo of justice denied to the Palestinians, fear of the other, fear of change — these are the ways to mutual ruin, not mutual respect.”
Pope Francis thanked the king for his efforts to bring peace and, departing from his prepared text, closed his own remarks by praying for God’s protection “against that fear of change that, as your majesty said, has done us so much harm.”
The pope arrived in Amman shortly before 1 p.m. after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Rome. He was met at the airport by some church leaders, a member of the royal family and an honor guard, then was transported to the palace.
He jokingly told journalists aboard the plane, “As I said before, I go down like Daniel, but I know the lions do not bite, and thus I go in peace.”
The pope thanked reporters for accompanying him on a “very demanding trip” that would require them to “look, write, think about so many things.”
He also promised he would conduct an on-board news conference during his return flight to Rome May 26, even though “one of you said that it would not be possible because there will be a devastating trip.”
The pope’s reference was to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, who was standing beside the pope as he spoke, and who had earlier told reporters that such an appearance by the pope would be “almost miraculous.”
On the return flight from his only other international trip, to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Pope Francis answered questions from journalists for nearly an hour and a half, making headlines with comments on controversial topics including homosexuality in the priesthood and corruption in the Vatican.
On the streets of Amman, a Muslim taxi cab driver named Hassan told Catholic News Service, “Both Christians and Muslims in Jordan are welcoming the pope.”
“We consider him a man of peace. Look, he even wears a white robe, and for us that symbolizes someone who carries the message of peace for all people,” he said.
“He’s considered as a person higher than a president of a country, and we honor him,” he added.
The driver, however, lamented that he might lose business because many of Amman’s roads and the main highway to Bethany Beyond the Jordan were locked down as a security measure to safeguard the pope and his entourage.
“Maybe, I’ll just make $10 at the most today. But perhaps I can catch some of those heading to the sport stadium for the papal Mass, even the Baptism Site,” he said, with a chuckle.
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Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak.
At Amman Mass, pope calls on Christians to promote peace
By Francis X. Rocca
AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Celebrating Mass on his first day in the Holy Land, Pope Francis said hope for peace in a region torn by sectarian conflicts comes from faith in God.
“The way of peace is strengthened if we realize that we are all of the same stock and members of one human family, if we never forget that we have the same heavenly father and are all his children, made in his image and likeness,” the pope said May 24 in his homily at Amman’s International Stadium.
“Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle, for variety always enriches,” he told the congregation of some 30,000 people. “We ought, therefore, to show concrete signs of humility, fraternity, forgiveness and reconciliation.
“Peace is not something which can be bought,” the pope said. “It is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives.”
“Let us ask the spirit to prepare our hearts to encounter our brothers and sisters, so that we may overcome our differences rooted in political thinking, language, culture and religion,” he said. “Let us ask him to anoint our whole being with the oil of mercy, which heals the injuries caused by mistakes, misunderstandings and disputes.”
Under blue skies, with temperatures in the low 70s and the air stirred by a dry breeze, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Italian, with readings and responses read in Arabic.
Before the pope’s arrival, clusters of yellow and white balloons representing the Vatican flag colors were released in the sky above the stadium, followed by those of the Jordanian flag — white, red, black and green — amid the cheering crowd.
As he arrived, the pope embraced children, the sick and others who ventured closed to a fence to catch his attention. Before he spoke, white doves were released into the sky, adding to participants’ excitement.
The pope acknowledged the presence in the congregation of “many Christian refugees from Palestine, Syria and Iraq,” asking them to take his greetings to their families and communities, “and assure them of my closeness.”
An estimated 1.3 million refugees now live in Jordan, alongside a permanent population of 6.4 million. The pope was scheduled to meet with young refugees following the Mass, after a visit to a traditional site of Jesus’ baptism near the Jordan River.
Pope Francis also acknowledged the approximately 1,400 Jordanian children making their first Communion at the Mass. The children were dressed in white, with many of the boys wearing baseball caps in the gold and white colors of the Vatican flag.
Miram Dabbaneh was excited that her 9-year-old son was among those receiving his first Communion.
“It’s a blessing for Jordan and the Middle East for (Pope Francis) to come,” she said. “In Jordan, we Christians feel safe because of the presence of His Majesty King Abdullah.”
At the end of Mass, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem addressed the pope in Italian, calling the Catholic Church a source of unity in Jordan, both among Christians and the general population. But he lamented the “true human hemorrhage” of Christian emigration to other Arab countries and North America.
The Christian population of Jordan is estimated at 4-6 percent.
Pope Francis’ exit from the stadium was slightly disrupted, as several bishops insisted on greeting him rather than take their places in the recessional procession.
Among those in the crowd was Collette Aoush, a Catholic youth leader from Lebanon, who traveled to see the pope with about 1,000 Lebanese.
“He is the person who will bring peace, humility, and a big message to the world, especially Christians,” she said. “We hope Pope Francis will be a saint.”
Jordanian businessman Omar Naajad, who traveled from Dubai especially for the visit, said Pope Francis “is what the church needs nowadays.”
“He’s inclusive. He doesn’t exclude anybody from the church whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Buddist or homosexual. That’s what I always felt the church needs,” he said. “It’s really wonderful to have such a pope, although I am Orthodox.”
Canadian Serena Myrholm saw the pope in Rome at Easter and said she and her husband really wanted to see him in Amman, where they work as teachers in an international school.
“He’s an example of what we should be regardless of background,” said the native of Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We really love his model of humility for the rest of humankind,” said her husband, Bradley Myrholm.
An U.S. defense contractor from New Orleans on temporary assignment in Jordan also attended the Mass.
“It’s amazing to see the pope in a Muslim country rather than a country dominated by Christianity,” said the 31-year-old, who identified himself only as Dennis. “It’s amazing!”
The pope’s fast-paced three-day trip to the Holy Land was also scheduled to take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It was organized to mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s meeting in Jerusalem with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, considered first among equals by Orthodox bishops. Pope Francis was scheduled to commemorate that event with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem May 25.
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Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak.
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