Vatican City, 24 May 2014 (VIS) – Today the Pope began his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the encounter between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. The aeroplane carrying the Holy Father departed at 8.15 from Rome's Fiumicino airport and landed at 1 p.m. local time, midday in Rome, in the “Queen Alia” airport of Amman, Jordan.
The Pope was welcomed upon arrival by the representative of King Abdullah II, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem of the Latins, His Beatitude Fouad Twali and the Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M. A child offered him a black orchid, the flower that symbolises the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Following a brief conversation with the representative of the monarch in the Royal Pavilion, the Pope transferred by car to the Al-Husseini Royal Palace of Amman, where King Abdullah II and Queen Rania awaited him.
During Paul VI's visit to the Holy Land in 1964, King Hussein, father of the current monarch, accompanied the Pope to the doors of Jerusalem. Abdullah II welcomed St. John Paul to the Holy Land in 2000, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2009; in return, he has been received twice by Pope Francis, first in 2013 and again in April this year.
Following a short private meeting with the king and his family, Francis entered the palace hall where he was awaited by around three hundred people, including the kingdom's highest authorities, representatives of the diplomatic corps and the main leaders of other religions, and he gave his first address in the Holy Land. He remarked first that Jordan is a land “rich in history and with great religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam”.
He continued, “Jordan has offered a generous welcome to great numbers of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, as well as to other refugees from troubled areas, particularly neighbouring Syria, ravaged by a conflict which has lasted all too long. Such generosity merits the appreciation and support of the international community. The Catholic Church, to the extent of its abilities, has sought to provide assistance to refugees and those in need, especially through Caritas Jordan. While acknowledging with deep regret the continuing grave tensions in the Middle East, I thank the authorities of the Kingdom for all that they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region. This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Holy Father took the opportunity to reiterate his “profound respect and esteem for the Muslim community and my appreciation for the leadership of His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues taught by Islam and a climate of serene coexistence between the faithful of the different religions”, adding, “You are known as a man of peace and a peacemaker. I am grateful that Jordan has supported a number of important initiatives aimed at advancing interreligious dialogue and understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims. I think in particular of the Amman Message and the support given within the United Nations Organisation to the annual celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week”.
He addressed an affectionate greeting to the Christian communities “present in Jordan since apostolic times, contributing to the common good of the society of which they are fully a part. Although Christians today are numerically a minority, theirs is a significant and valued presence in the fields of education and health care, thanks to their schools and hospitals. They are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom. 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 right to religious freedom 'includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship… the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public'. Christians consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens, and as such they seek, together with their Muslim fellow citizens, to make their own particular contribution to the society in which they live”.
He concluded his discourse by invoking “peace and prosperity upon the Kingdom of Jordan and its people. I pray that my visit will help to advance and strengthen good and cordial relations between Christians and Muslims”, and, citing the King's discourse, he prayed that God might free all from fear of change. He thanked the King and Queen for their courteous welcome and concluded, “May the Almighty and Merciful God grant happiness and long life to Your Majesties, and may he bless Jordan abundantly. Salaam!”