AMMAN, Jordan –– 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.
Pope Francis and Israel’s President Shimon Peres plant an olive tree as a symbol for peace after their meeting at the president’s residence May 26. (CNS photo/ Amir Cohen, EPA)“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 May 24 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.”
He also promised he would conduct an on-board news conference during his return flight to Rome May 26, even though “one of you said that it would not be possible because there will be a devastating trip.”
The pope’s reference was to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, who was standing beside the pope as he spoke, and who had earlier told reporters that such an appearance by the pope would be “almost miraculous.”
On the return flight from his only other international trip, to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Pope Francis answered questions from journalists for nearly an hour and a half, making headlines with comments on controversial topics including homosexuality in the priesthood and corruption in the Vatican.
On the streets of Amman, a Muslim taxi cab driver named Hassan told Catholic News Service, “Both Christians and Muslims in Jordan are welcoming the pope.”
“We consider him a man of peace. Look, he even wears a white robe, and for us that symbolizes someone who carries the message of peace for all people,” he said.
“He’s considered as a person higher than a president of a country, and we honor him,” he added.
The driver, however, lamented that he might lose business because many of Amman’s roads and the main highway to Bethany Beyond the Jordan were locked down as a security measure to safeguard the pope and his entourage.
“Maybe, I’ll just make $10 at the most today. But perhaps I can catch some of those heading to the sport stadium for the papal Mass, even the Baptism Site,” he said, with a chuckle.

Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak.