Pope Francis has begun a packed visit to the Holy Land with a call for religious freedom in the Middle East, including respect for the right to change one’s religion.
“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 Pope said in a speech to local dignitaries shortly after his arrival in Jordan.
Starting his fast-paced three-day visit, which was scheduled to take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Pope said Jordanian Christians, who make up less than two per cent of the country’s population, “are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom”, and he thanked Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the country’s Muslim community for their support of inter-religious dialogue with Christians and Jews.
A number of Middle Eastern governments, however, prohibit or restrict the practice of any religion besides Islam.
Quoting Benedict XVI, Pope Francis said the right to religious freedom necessarily includes the “freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public”.
The Pope also paid tribute to Jordan’s “generous welcome” to Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. An estimated 1.3 million refugees now live in Jordan, alongside a permanent population of 6.4 million.
The Pope was scheduled to meet with young refugees later in the day, following a visit to a possible site of Jesus’s baptism near the Jordan River. Pope Francis has underscored the plight of refugees throughout his pontificate and called with particular urgency for an end to the Syrian civil war, which has displaced millions, inside and outside the country, since 2011.
The Pope addressed Jordanian authorities following a private meeting with King Abdullah in the royal palace.
In his welcoming remarks to the Pope, the king deplored the “terrible cost of sectarian and interreligious conflict” and said “Arab Christians are an integral part of the Middle East”.
The king also spoke of the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying the “status quo of justice denied to the Palestinians, fear of the other, fear of change – these are the ways to mutual ruin, not mutual respect”.
Pope Francis thanked the king for his efforts to bring peace and, departing from his prepared text, closed his own remarks by praying for God’s protection “against that fear of change that, as your majesty said, has done us so much harm”.
The Pope arrived in Amman shortly before 1pm after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Rome. He was met at the airport by some church leaders, a member of the royal family and an honour guard, then was transported to the palace.
He jokingly told journalists aboard the plane: “As I said before, I go down like Daniel, but I know the lions do not bite, and thus I go in peace.”
The Pope thanked reporters for accompanying him on a “very demanding trip” that would require them to “look, write, think about so many things”.
He also promised he would conduct an on-board press conference during his return flight to Rome on Monday, even though “one of you said that it would not be possible because there will be a devastating trip”.
The Pope’s reference was to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, who was standing beside the Pope as he spoke, and who had earlier told reporters that such an appearance by the Pope would be “almost miraculous”.
On the return flight from his only other international trip, to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Pope Francis answered questions from journalists for nearly an hour and a half, making headlines with comments on controversial topics including homosexuality in the priesthood and corruption in the Vatican.
On the streets of Amman, a Muslim taxi cab driver named Hassan told the US Catholic News Service: “Both Christians and Muslims in Jordan are welcoming the Pope.”
“We consider him a man of peace. Look, he even wears a white robe, and for us that symbolises someone who carries the message of peace for all people,” he said.
“He’s considered as a person higher than a president of a country, and we honour him,” he added.
The driver, however, lamented that he might lose business because many of Amman’s roads and the main highway to Bethany Beyond the Jordan were locked down as a security measure to safeguard the pope and his entourage.
“Maybe, I’ll just make $10 at the most today. But perhaps I can catch some of those heading to the sport stadium for the papal Mass, even the Baptism Site,” he said, with a chuckle.
Dale Gavlak contributed to this story
Full text of Pope Francis’s address:
Dear Brother Bishops,
I thank God for granting me this opportunity to visit the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the footsteps of my predecessors Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I am grateful to His Majesty King Abdullah II for his warm words of welcome, as I recall with pleasure our recent meeting in the Vatican. I also greet the members of the Royal Family, the government and the people of Jordan, this land so rich in history and with such great religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Jordan has offered a generous welcome to great numbers of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, as well as to other refugees from troubled areas, particularly neighboring Syria, ravaged by a conflict which has lasted all too long. Such generosity merits, Your Majesty, the appreciation and support of the international community. The Catholic Church, to the extent of its abilities, has sought to provide assistance to refugees and those in need, especially through Caritas Jordan.
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.
I take this opportunity to reiterate my profound respect and esteem for the Muslim community and my appreciation for the leadership of His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues taught by Islam and a climate of serene coexistence between the faithful of the different religions. You are known as a man of peace and a peacemaker: thank you! I am grateful that Jordan has supported a number of important initiatives aimed at advancing interreligious dialogue and understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims. I think in particular of the Amman Message and the support given within the United Nations Organization to the annual celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week.
I would also like to offer an affectionate greeting to the Christian communities welcomed by this Kingdom, communities present in this country since apostolic times, contributing to the common good of the society of which they are fully a part. Although Christians today are numerically a minority, theirs is a significant and valued presence in the fields of education and health care, thanks to their schools and hospitals. They are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom. 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). Christians consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens, and as such they seek, together with their Muslim fellow citizens, to make their own particular contribution to the society in which they live.
Finally, I cordially invoke peace and prosperity upon the Kingdom of Jordan and its people. I pray that my visit will help to advance and strengthen good and cordial relations between Christians and Muslims. And may the Lord God preserve us from the fear of change which Your Majesty referred to.
I thank you for your courteous and warm welcome. May the Almighty and Merciful God grant happiness and long life to Your Majesties, and may he bless Jordan abundantly. Salaam!
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