Pope Francis praises Jordan at start of Middle East visit

The Pope greets reporters on his plane to the Middle East, including the BBC's Jeremy Bowen

Pope Francis has praised Jordan for its "generous welcome" to Syrian refugees at the start of a three-day visit to the Middle East.

The Pope was welcomed by King Abdullah II and in a speech at the royal palace, he stressed the need for an "urgent" solution to the Syrian conflict.

He went on to celebrate Mass at a stadium in the capital Amman and will later meet Syrian refugees.

The tour's official purpose is to improve ties with the Orthodox Church.

However, correspondents say many will expect Pope Francis to use his influence to try to ease tensions in the Middle East.

His highlighting of Jordan's role in accepting Syrian refugees came weeks after the kingdom opened a new camp which could accommodate up to 130,000 refugees. Jordan is already host to almost 600,000 people fleeing the conflict, according to the UN.

In his speech, he also called for more respect for religious freedom, calling it "a fundamental human right".

"I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world," he said. Christian minorities have been subject to increasing attacks in some parts of the Middle East in recent years.

He thanked Jordan for its "efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region" and said this would also require a "just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

On Sunday he is to begin two days in the West Bank and Israel.

He told journalists that the trip would be "challenging" but rewarding, AP reports.

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By BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, travelling with Pope Francis

Pope Francis comes across as an approachable, amiable man. Not long after takeoff he came to greet the 50 or so journalists travelling with him. They're mostly reporters who follow the Pope full-time. One woman said that Pope Benedict, Francis's predecessor, never came back to talk to journalists. She asked him to pose for a selfie, which he did with a smile.

He told me he had been in Jerusalem only once before, in 1973 at the time of the Yom Kippur war. The Pope insists his trip is about religion, officially marking the fiftieth anniversary of a visit by Pope Paul VI 50 years ago. But he's heading for Jerusalem, where everything is political. It will take diplomatic skill to avoid controversy.

Palestinians hope he will have something to say about their desire for independence. In Bethlehem, which is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinians say they are threatened by the encroachment of Jewish settlements. The Israeli government will hope he stays as neutral as possible - a position which would disappoint Palestinian Christians.

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Restraining orders

The Pope will be accompanied by a rabbi and an imam - friends from his native Argentina - and hopes to improve relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land.

His journey comes only a few weeks after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed.

Israel has issued restraining orders against several Jewish right-wing activists this week over concerns that they could try to disrupt the visit.

Police said offensive "anti-Christian graffiti" was discovered on the wall of a church in the southern city of Beersheba on Friday.

A general view of Manger Square as workers prepare for the visit of Pope Francis to the West Bank town of Bethlehem on 23 May 2014 Preparations were well under way at Manger Square in Bethlehem ahead of the Pope's visit

The Pope's journey marks the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Athenagoras.

The meeting ended 900 years of separation and enduring antagonism between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.

On Sunday, Pope Francis will travel to Bethlehem in the West Bank and preside over Mass in Manger Square, near the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

He will also meet the current Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Bartholomew, and they will sign a declaration of friendship.

His schedule on Monday is set to include a visit to the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem's Old City followed by the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.

Pope Francis will be the fourth leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Jerusalem, after Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who went there in 2009.

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