Pope begins Middle East 'pilgrimage' in Jordan

Pope begins Middle East 'pilgrimage' in Jordan
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal (left), the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, speaks as members of the Patriarchs of the East council discuss Pope Francis' visit to Jordan.

AMMAN - Pope Francis arrives in Jordan Saturday at the start of a Middle East tour aiming to boost ties with Muslims and Jews as well as easing an age-old rift within Christianity itself.

The Vatican has billed Francis' first visit to a region roiled by religious and political differences as a "pilgrimage of prayer," saying the pope will shun bulletproof vehicles in favour of open-top cars despite security concerns.

Israeli authorities have moved to lessen the possibility of trouble by issuing restraining orders against 15 right-wing Jewish activists this week, ordering them to stay away from sites being visited by the pope, after a string of hate attacks on Christian sites.

"It will be a purely religious trip," the pope told some 50,000 pilgrims at his last general audience in St Peter's Square before his three-day visit that takes him to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Francis said the main reasons for the trip were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I - a key Orthodox leader - and "to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much".

That ceremony in which he will take part in a special joint prayer with Bartholomew on Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - venerated as the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection - is seen by the Vatican as the highlight of the visit.

The meeting is fitting, given that Francis has made ecumenism, the ideal of unity of the Christian Churches, one of the priorities of his papacy.

He will also meet with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, in an interview with French daily Le Figaro, said he attached "great importance" to the pope's trip, calling Francis "a man of noble humility." "I don't think the visit is going to bring the signing of a peace deal tomorrow, or even the organisation of a conference, but I am sure that it will make a substantial contribution because the pope respects all cultures and all religions," he added.

The 77-year-old Argentine pope has already set the tone for a trip rich in symbolism by inviting two old friends from Buenos Aires to join him, Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud.

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