Pope Francis landed in Jordan on Saturday, beginning a three-day Mideast pilgrimage he vowed would be religious in nature, but will inevitably reflect the region’s volatile politics.
After touching down at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, the pontiff received a red-carpet welcome, accepting bouquets from children and shaking hands with assembled dignitaries and religious leaders. This is his first visit to the Holy Land as pope, and the trip will also take him to the West Bank and Israel.
Security was tight, with Francis clearly making his hosts somewhat nervous by eschewing a bulletproof “popemobile.” Jordanian soldiers lined the airport road at intervals, and patrolled nearby overpasses. The Argentina-born pontiff, whose tenure to date has been marked by gestures of humility, has said he feels that riding in a fortified vehicle would isolate him from the people.
In Jordan, Francis met with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the royal palace, said Mass in a stadium in the capital before tens of thousands of celebrants, and was visiting the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism and hearing firsthand the stories of refugees, many of whom fled Syria’s grinding civil war. At a welcoming ceremony, Francis thanked Jordan for taking in so many refugees despite the strain on its limited resources.
Jordan has some 600,000 registered refugees from Syria, but the true number is probably double that, according to aid groups. Syria’s Christians make up only about 5% of the population, but they are a disproportionate share of refugees, as some historically Christian enclaves have been hit hard by fighting.
A major theme of the papal visit will be offering encouragement to the region’s ever-dwindling flock of Christian faithful. Francis, like other popes before him, has mourned the decline of Christian populations in the cradle of Christianity. In arrival remarks, he sent out an "affectionate greeting" to the region's Christians.
Once the pontiff leaves Jordan on Sunday, he will face a delicate task in navigating the political minefield that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His visit comes on the heels of the latest high-profile collapse of peace efforts, with Secretary of State John F. Kerry unable to bring the two sides any closer.
In a break with previous protocol, Francis is flying directly from Amman to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, rather than transiting Israel first, and he will visit a Palestinian refugee camp, highlighting the plight of those displaced when Israel was created. The Vatican supports a two-state solution to the conflict, and Israel is unhappy about the official papal agenda describing the West Bank stop as a visit to the “State of Palestine.”