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Pope Francis Prepares for Holy Land Visit

  • Scott Bobb

FILE - Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican.

FILE - Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican.

Pope Francis Saturday begins a three-day trip to the Middle East, his first to the region since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church.

On Saturday, Pope Francis travels to Jordan, where he will meet King Abdullah and celebrate Mass before 40,000 people in Amman's main stadium.

He later visits the site on the Jordan River where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized, and he is to meet with refugees from neighboring countries.

The counselor of the Vatican embassy in Amman, Monsignor Jorge Rueda, notes that Jordan is hosting hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

"I think with this visit, his Holiness wishes to say, 'Thank you, Jordan.' Because this country has opened its doors to receive all our brothers. It's a sign of peace, this visit, because the pope will meet all these refugees," said Rueda.

The pope on Sunday flies by helicopter to Bethlehem in the West Bank.

After meeting with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the pontiff is to celebrate Mass in Manger Square, near the site where Christians believe Jesus was born. The church leader is also to meet Palestinian refugees at a camp nearby before going to Jerusalem.

In the Old City he is to hold several meetings with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I. This is to mark a meeting 50 years ago of church leaders who launched reconciliation efforts after centuries of conflict.

A coordinator of the visit, Vicar David Neuhaus, said the reconciliation is important to all Christians.

"This is one of the terrible wounds on the face of the Church. But this is also an opening to bring all Christians together -- eastern and western, Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox and the ancient churches of the East -- to say, it's enough. The Lord asked very deliberately that we be one," said Neuhaus.

On Monday, the pontiff meets with the senior Muslim leader of Jerusalem and subsequently with the two chief rabbis of Jerusalem.

Father Neuhaus said the meetings underscore the pope's deep ties to both communities.

"He has a deep, personal commitment to relations with the Jews. And just as intimately, we are also profoundly linked to the Palestinian people. And here is the delicacy, coming into a region where the joy of one is the disaster of the other, and the disaster of one is the joy of the other, the Pope is coming as a profound friend of both," said Neuhaus.

Laura Rodriguez, from the pope's native Argentina, was visiting Jerusalem's Old City on the eve of his visit. She hoped his presence would calm some of the turmoil in the Middle East.

"Let him come because it is about time for some peace in the region, with so many political changes and conflicts," she said. She would like to see the visit bring political change to the society.

The pope concludes his trip with a visit to Israel's memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Church officials say this and his meetings with refugees throughout the trip are meant to show the pontiff's concern for the suffering of all human beings.