Pope Francis called for urgent steps to end Syria's three-year-old civil war as he arrived in neighbouring Jordan yesterday, starting a Middle East trip aimed at bringing hope to the region's dwindling Christian population.
Addressing Jordan's King Abdullah on his first visit as pope to the Holy Land, Francis praised the Western-backed kingdom for its efforts to "to seek lasting peace for the entire region".
"This great 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," he said, departing from his prepared text to describe the king as "an artisan for peace".
More than 160,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict and millions have fled to neighbouring countries, including Jordan. The refugees are from all faiths, but Christians feel threatened by radical Sunni Muslims now leading the military insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
Francis was due to meet some of those Syrian refugees in Bethany on the River Jordan, the place where according to tradition Jesus was baptised, as well as others who fled violence in Iraq.
Conflict across the Middle East, including the Arab revolts of recent years and the civil war in Syria, has accelerated a historic decline in the region's Christian population.
The pope will also travel to Israel and the occupied West Bank, where peace talks broke down two weeks ago and more Palestinian Christians are looking to leave, accusing Israel of eroding their economic prospects and restricting their movement.
Francis, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, appealed for mutual tolerance between religions.
"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.
Abdullah, whose Hashemite family traces its descent from the Prophet Mohammed, said Islam was a religion of harmony, mercy and justice, and that Jordan had worked to reject "the false claims of those who spread hatred and sow division. ...
"Let me say, forthrightly, that Arab Christian communities are an integral part of the Middle East," he said.
Following his meeting with the monarch, Francis celebrated Mass in an Amman stadium where an enthusiastic crowd of about 20,000 listen to him speak from a platform shaded by a canopy in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican.
"We are already singing for him to become a saint," said Sister Rachel, 77.
"This pope is special. He only wants to see the poor and the diseased. He is the protector of the helpless," she said.
A Muslim call to prayer sounded out nearby as the pope concluded his homily, in which he stressed the need to work together to overcome divisions. "Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle," he said.
Today Francis flies by helicopter to Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, making a six-hour visit to what the Vatican's official programme calls "the State of Palestine", a terminology Israel rejects.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse