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AMMAN, Jordan – On the first leg of his three-day Mideast trip, Pope Francis will get a firsthand look at the plight of Syrian refugees and witness the toll the civil war next door is taking on Jordan.
Francis frequently has lamented the plight of refugees, denouncing the "globalization of indifference" that often greets them in their newly adopted homelands. At the same time, he and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the Holy Land, insisting recently: "We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!"
After meeting with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the royal palace, Francis is due to celebrate Mass on Saturday in Amman's International Stadium. The Vatican expects some 25,000 people to attend, many of them Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Later, he will meet one-on-one with 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 against 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.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Francis wants to offer comfort to all Christians who live in the region and encourage them to stay.
"These Christians are living stones, and without their presence, the Holy Land and its holy sites risk becoming a museum," Parolin told Vatican Television on the eve of the trip.
Jordan last month opened a third camp for Syrian refugees, a stark indication of the strains the civil war is creating for the country. The sprawling facility is designed to accommodate up to 130,000 people and potentially become the world's second-largest refugee camp. Jordan is hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population. Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.
For the Syrian Christians who will greet Francis, his presence is a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the 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."
Another Orthodox Christian from Maaloula, Yacoub Josef, said he couldn't wait to leave.
"We wish that the situation in Syria would be better, but we hope to immigrate because we have had enough of being homeless," he said.
Francis will visit a Palestinian refugee camp on 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, and Palestinian officials are eager to show Francis the limbo endured by generations of Palestinians forced or driven out in the war over Israel's 1948 creation. Today, along with their descendants, these refugees make up more than 5 million people scattered across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Parolin, the Vatican No. 2, said Francis would emphasize the Vatican's longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "The right of Israel to exist and enjoy peace and security inside its internationally recognized borders, and the right of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign, independent homeland, freedom of movement and the right to live in dignity."
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.
Representatives of other churches also will be present, including Cardinal Bechara Rai, the first leader of Lebanon's largest Christian sect, the Maronite Catholic Church, to visit Jerusalem since Israel captured the city's eastern sector. Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis.
Underscoring the sensitive political nature of the trip, Rai's plans to visit Israel have drawn criticism. He angrily walked out of an interview with France 24 on Friday while in Amman, after the reporter pressed him on the motives for his visit.
"I don't come to the Holy Land for political, economic or military goals. ... Jerusalem is our city and we are in the Holy Land since hundreds of years, we cannot leave our land and our people," he said.
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 and will become the first pope to lay a wreath of flowers on Mount Herzl, named for the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He returns to the Vatican Monday night.
Winfield reported from Rome.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield.