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Pope urges peace for Syria at start of Mideast tour

AMMAN -- Pope Francis made an urgent plea Saturday for peace in war-torn Syria as he kicked off a three-day pilgrimage to the Middle East.

And he called for religious freedom to be upheld throughout a region ravaged by war and bloodshed, where a dwindling Christian population faces daily persecution.

As he walked off the plane onto a red carpet at Amman airport, his white robes flapping in the hot desert wind, he was greeted by officials and two children dressed in traditional costume who handed him bouquets of irises, the national flower of Jordan.

At a stadium in the city, where Francis will celebrate an afternoon mass, thousands of people were packing into blue and red chairs in front of a large altar, behind which hung posters of John Paul II and John XXIII, who were made saints this month.

The three-day tour, which has been billed as a “pilgrimage of prayer,” will also take Francis to Israel and the Palestinian territories on a landmark first visit aimed at boosting ties with Muslims and Jews, as well as easing an age-old rift within Christianity.

“Lasting peace for the entire region ... requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the pope said at the royal palace, ahead of a meeting with Syrian refugees.

Syria's civil war, which began in 2011, is estimated to have claimed at least 162,000 lives and forced another 2.7 million people to flee to neighboring countries, 450,000 of them Christians.

Jordan's King Abdullah II told Francis his “humanity and wisdom” could contribute to easing the crisis confronting Syrian refugees and the burden on hosts countries like Jordan.

As his white car drove through the streets towards the royal palace, well-wishers waved Jordanian and Vatican flags and held up banners welcoming him, under the watchful eye of security guards.

Later Saturday, Francis was to head to a site on the River Jordan where many believe Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. There he will hear first-hand accounts of the suffering in Syria from some of the 600,000 refugees hosted by Jordan.

The 77-year-old pontiff also urged respect for religious freedom in a region where the Holy See called for an end to the ongoing persecution of Christians.

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Pope Francis waves to pilgrims upon his arrival at the Amman stadium where he celebrated mass, yesterday in the Jordanian capital. (AFP)

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