AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Francis called on Saturday for an "urgent" end to the Syrian civil war and lamented the refugee crisis it has spawned as he opened a three-day trip to the Middle East.
During his first stop in Jordan, Francis also urged greater religious rights for minority Christians across the region, thanking King Abdullah II for encouraging a "climate of serene coexistence" between Christians and Muslims.
"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 in an opening speech to Abdullah and Jordan's religious and political leaders.
Francis' plane touched down at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, where he was met by an honor guard, Catholic leaders and Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, the king's chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs. He immediately headed to the king's palace in a simple, four-door sedan, a group of motorcycles riding alongside him. Small groups of people waving Jordanian and Vatican flags cheered him as he passed.
At the palace, Francis met with Abdullah, Queen Rania and their children. In his palace speech, Francis said Jordan's "generous welcome" to Syrian refugees warranted international appreciation and support.
Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp for Syrians who fled the civil war at home, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. Jordan is currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population, but Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.
"I thank the authorities of the kingdom for all they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region," Francis said. "This 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."
Francis returned to the theme of peace during Mass at Amman's windswept international stadium, urging the faithful to "put aside our grievances and divisions" for the sake of peace and unity.
"Peace isn't something which can be bought; it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives," he said. The crowd, which the Vatican had estimated could exceed 25,000, gave him a warm welcome as he zipped around the stadium in his open-topped car, kissing children who were held up to him.
Later Saturday, the pope was to see first-hand the plight of Syrian refugees when he meets with some 600 refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus' baptism.
Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria's population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's rule have fueled fears among the country's religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt. Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad.
Francis and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the region, insisting recently: "We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!"
On Saturday, Francis sought to encourage those who had decided to remain, lauding Jordan for welcoming in refugees and ensuring all Christians in the kingdom could freely profess their faith.
In his opening remarks, Abdullah said Christian communities were an "integral part" of the Middle East and that he had sought to uphold "the true spirit of Islam, the Islam of peace," which extends to protecting holy sites for Christians and Muslims alike. He urged the pope to use his "humanity and wisdom" to help end the conflict in Syria and to encourage leaders to take the courageous steps needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The status-quo of `justice denied' to the Palestinians; fear of the other; fear of change; these are the way to mutual ruin, not mutual respect," he said.
For the refugees who will greet Francis on Saturday, his presence in Jordan is a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the Syrian conflict drags on.
"We are very happy because he will see Christians in the Arab world, he will see us and see our suffering," said Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula who will be among the 600 or so people to greet the pope at Bethany beyond the Jordan. "We wish that peace will be restored in the whole world, and in Syria."
Francis has a packed schedule for the three-day visit: He will visit a Palestinian refugee camp Sunday when he travels from Amman directly to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It's the first time a pope has landed in the West Bank rather than Tel Aviv first in a nod by the Vatican to the "Palestinian state."
Technically, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem by their predecessors which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That highlight will come on Sunday, when Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Francis will spend Monday in Jerusalem, visiting the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel's chief rabbis, albeit separately. He'll also pray at the Western Wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.
The Vatican spokesman had suggested that with such a grueling schedule, Francis might not have the strength for an on-board press conference on the return flight from Israel on Monday night. Francis, 77, who has only one full lung and has battled a cold and fatigue that forced him to cancel some recent appointments, set the record straight at the start of the trip.
"One of you said a press conference wouldn't be possible because this is a `deathly' trip," he told reporters. "But returning home, I intend to have one."
He then greeted reporters one by one -- and even posed for a "selfie."