Bearing a message of peace to a strife-torn region, Pope Francis embraced Christian pilgrims and refugees Saturday, the inaugural day of a three-day Mideast pilgrimage.
The pope landed in Jordan for a sojourn he vowed would be religious in nature, but which inevitably reflects the region's volatile politics.
After touching down at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, he received a red-carpet welcome, accepting bouquets from children, reviewing an honor guard and shaking hands with assembled dignitaries and religious leaders. A Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi accompanied him on what is his first visit to the Holy Land as pope, a trip that 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 in favor of an open car. Jordanian soldiers lined the airport road at 100-yard intervals and patrolled nearby overpasses. The 77-year-old Argentina-born pontiff, whose brief tenure to date has been marked by gestures of humility and identification with the poor, has said he believed that riding in a fortified vehicle would isolate him from the public.
Francis met with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the royal palace, and then said Mass in a stadium before at least 15,000 celebrants, some of whom had waited for hours in the blazing sun to be sure they would catch a glimpse of him.
"The pope coming here. It is as if he is enfolding us in his arms," said Mariam Bassam, who escaped from Iraq with her family nearly a decade ago, as she waited outside the venue. Though she is not Roman Catholic but follows Eastern rites, as do many Middle Eastern Christians, she said she felt that Francis had made a profound gesture of solidarity.
"He loves us. You can feel it — he loves us," she said tearfully. At the stadium, the pope kissed children held up for him by the faithful who pressed close to his vehicle.
During the open-air ceremony, the pontiff made a cautious allusion to regional tension, urging conciliation rather than surrendering to old hatreds.
"Peace is not something which can be bought," he said. "It is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through actions, great and small, of our everyday lives. The way of peace is strengthened if we realize that we are all of the same stock and members of the one human family."
Later, Francis visited what many hold to be the site of Jesus' baptism on the banks of the Jordan River, hearing there the firsthand stories of refugees, many of whom had fled Syria's grinding civil war.
At a welcoming ceremony in Amman, the Jordanian capital, he thanked Jordan for taking in so many who had no choice but to desert their homeland, despite the enormous strain on its limited resources, and expressed hope for an end to the three-year Syrian conflict.
Jordan has about 600,000 registered refugees from Syria, but the actual number is probably double that, according to aid groups. Christians compose about 5% of Syria's population, but they make up a disproportionate share of refugees, as some historically Christian enclaves have been hit particularly hit hard by fighting.
A major theme of the papal visit is offering encouragement to the region's ever-dwindling flock of Christian faithful. Francis, like his predecessors, has mourned the decline of Christian populations in the cradle of Christianity.
In the West Bank and Israel, the pope will face the delicate task of navigating a long-standing political minefield. His visit comes on the heels of the latest collapse of peace efforts, with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, despite a concentrated effort, unable to bring Palestinian and Israeli leaders any closer.
In a break with protocol, Francis was to fly directly from Amman to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, rather than transiting through Israel. And he will visit a Palestinian refugee camp, highlighting the plight of those displaced when Israel was founded in 1948.
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."
Cairo bureau chief Laura King is on assignment in Amman.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times