'Viva papa Francesco' screamed banners as Pope Francis arrived in Jordan on Saturday to begin his first visit to the Holy Lands of Jordan, Israel and the West Bank.
It has become a papal tradition to follow the steps of Jesus starting in Jordan, home to the pilgrimage site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
The Pontiff's three-day visit to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem from 24–26 May is the second foreign trip of Francis's pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.
The Pope met King Abdullah II and Queen Rania on arrival before he went to hold mass at International Stadium in Amman, where people waved the flags of Jordan and Vatican City and turned up in football jerseys of Argentina to mark the Pope's Argentine origins.
King Abdullah II welcome address focused on co-existence between faiths. "As the 41st descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, I have sought to uphold the true spirit of Islam, the Islam of peace. My Hashemite duty extends to protecting the holy sites of Christians and Muslims in Jordan and in Jerusalem. As Custodian, I am committed to safeguarding the Holy City, as a place of worship for all and, God willing, a safe home for all communities for all generations," said King Abdullah II.
Pope Francis called on for an end to the Syrian civil war that has led to a refugee crisis. "While acknowledging with deep regret the continuing grave tensions in the Middle East, I thank the authorities of the Kingdom for all that they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts 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," said the Pontiff.
Last month, Jordan opened a third refugee camp for Syrian escaping conflict at home. Jordan is currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10% of its population, but unofficial estimates puts the number closer to 1 million.
"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 right to religious freedom “includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship… [it also includes] the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public” (Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 26)," said Pope Francis.
The Pontiff also visited the holy Christian site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan where Christ was baptised by John the Baptist. He met Syrian and Iraqi refugees from both faiths at the Latin church there.
The Argentinian Jesuit is the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land: Paul VI visited in 1964, John Paul II in 2000, and Benedict XVI in 2009. The Muslim-majority nation of Jordan -- less than 6% of its population is Christian -- has 34 biblical sites, five of which have been recognised by The Vatican as Christian pilgrimage sites.
The nation has some of the world’s earliest churches, including the 2nd or 3rd century ‘prayer hall’ at Bethany Beyond-the-Jordan, the 4th century church at Umm Qays, and the remains of what is believed to be the oldest purpose-built church in the world at Aqaba.
“The historical visit reflects the country’s religious and touristic significance on the international map,” said Mohammad Al-Momani, minister of information. “It also highlights Jordan’s security and stability as well as its role in renouncing violence and terrorism.”