AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Pope Francis thanked Jordan on Saturday for welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, calling for an "urgent," peaceful solution to the conflict in the neighboring nation as he began a three-day visit to the Middle East.
Francis also lauded Jordan for the "climate of serene coexistence" enjoyed by Christians and Muslims in the desert kingdom. He called for greater protections for minority Christians across the region in a speech to King Abdullah II and Jordanian political and religious leaders.
"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.
Francis' 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. He immediately headed to the king's palace in a simple, four-door sedan, a group of motorcycles riding alongside him. Small groups of people waving Jordanian and Vatican flags cheered him as he passed.
At the palace, Francis met with Abdullah and Queen Rania, their children gathered for the meeting. In his palace speech, Francis said Jordan's "generous welcome" to Syrian refugees warranted international appreciation and support.
Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. Jordan is currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population, but Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.
"I thank the authorities of the kingdom for all they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region," Fracis said. "This 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."
Francis is due to get a firsthand look at the plight of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees later Sunday when he celebrates Mass at Amman's international stadium and then meets with some 600 refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus' baptism.
Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria's population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's rule have fueled fears among the country's religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt. Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad.
Francis has frequently lamented the plight of refugees, denouncing the "globalization of indifference" that often greets them in their newly adopted homelands. At the same time, he and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the Holy Land, insisting recently: "We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!"
King Abdullah referred to Christian-Muslim coexistence in his remarks, saying he had sought to uphold "the true spirit of Islam, the Islam of peace," which extends to protecting holy sites for Christians and Muslims alike. He urged the pope to help end the conflict in Syria and to encourage leaders to take the courageous steps needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Your humanity and wisdom can make a special contribution to easing the crisis of Syrian refugees and the burden on neighboring host countries like Jordan," he said.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he added: "The status-quo of 'justice denied' to the Palestinians; fear of the other; fear of change; these are the way to mutual ruin, not mutual respect."
For the refugees who will greet Francis on Saturday, his presence in Jordan is a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the Syrian conflict drags on.
"We are very happy because he will see Christians in the Arab world, he will see us and see our suffering," said Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula who will be among the 600 or so people to greet the pope at Bethany beyond the Jordan. "We wish that peace will be restored in the whole world, and in Syria."
Francis will visit a Palestinian refugee camp Sunday when he travels from Amman directly to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It's the first time a pope has landed in the West Bank rather than Tel Aviv first. Palestinian officials are eager to show Francis the limbo endured by generations of Palestinians who were forced or driven out in the war over Israel's 1948 creation. Today, along with their descendants, these refugees make up more than 5 million people scattered across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Technically, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem by their predecessors which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That highlight will come on Sunday, when Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Francis will spend Monday in Jerusalem, visiting the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel's chief rabbis, albeit separately. He'll also pray at the Western Wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and will become the first pope to lay a wreath of flowers on Mount Herzl, named for the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He returns to the Vatican just before midnight Monday night.
The Vatican spokesman had suggested that with such a grueling schedule, Francis might not have the strength for an on-board press conference on the return flight from Israel. Francis, 77, who has only one full lung and has battled a cold and fatigue that forced him to cancel some recent appointments, set the record straight at the start of the trip.
"One of you said a press conference wouldn't be possible because this is a 'deathly' trip," he told reporters on board. "But returning home, I intend to have the press conference."
He then greeted reporters one by one — and even posed for a "selfie."