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Pope, Arriving in Holy Land, Calls for Religious Freedom in Middle East

Pope Francis speaks aboard the papal plane on his way to Amman, Jordan, 24 May, the start of his three-day visit to the Holy Land. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring) 

24 May 2014 – By Francis X. Rocca

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Pope Francis began a densely packed visit to the Holy Land with a call for religious freedom in the Middle East, including respect for the right to change one’s religion.

“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,” the pope said on 24 May in a speech to local dignitaries shortly after his arrival in Jordan.

Starting his fast-paced three-day visit, which was scheduled to take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pope said Jordanian Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population, “are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom,” and he thanked Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the country’s Muslim community for their support of interreligious dialogue with Christians and Jews.

A number of Middle Eastern governments, however, prohibit or restrict the practice of any religion besides Islam.

Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis said the right to religious freedom necessarily includes the “freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.”

The pope also paid tribute to Jordan’s “generous welcome” to Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. An estimated 1.3 million refugees now live in Jordan, alongside a permanent population of 6.4 million.

The pope was scheduled to meet with young refugees later in the day, following a visit to a possible site of Jesus’ baptism near the Jordan River. Pope Francis has underscored the plight of refugees throughout his pontificate and called with particular urgency for an end to the Syrian civil war, which has displaced millions, inside and outside the country, since 2011.

The pope addressed Jordanian authorities following a private meeting with King Abdullah in the royal palace.

In his welcoming remarks to the pope, the king deplored the “terrible cost of sectarian and interreligious conflict” and said “Arab Christians are an integral part of the Middle East.”

The king also spoke of the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying the “status quo of justice denied to the Palestinians, fear of the other, fear of change — these are the ways to mutual ruin, not mutual respect.”

Pope Francis thanked the king for his efforts to bring peace and, departing from his prepared text, closed his own remarks by praying for God’s protection “against that fear of change that, as your majesty said, has done us so much harm.”

The pope arrived in Amman shortly before 1 p.m. after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Rome. He was met at the airport by some church leaders, a member of the royal family and an honor guard, then was transported to the palace.

He jokingly told journalists aboard the plane, “As I said before, I go down like Daniel, but I know the lions do not bite, and thus I go in peace.”

The pope thanked reporters for accompanying him on a “very demanding trip” that would require them to “look, write, think about so many things.”

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Tags: Pope Francis Jordan Holy Land Holy Land Christians religious freedom