Pope highlights Syrian conflict at start of Holy Land visit

Pope Francis renews appeal for an end to the conflict

Pope Francis visits Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ’s baptism, west of Amman, Jordan yesterday. Photograph: EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO

Pope Francis visits Bethany beyond the Jordan river, the site of Christ’s baptism, west of Amman, Jordan yesterday. Photograph: EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO


Not surprisingly, Pope Francis shone the spotlight on the conflict in Syria yesterday afternoon on the opening day of his three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Whilst he began his trip in true pilgrimage fashion by visiting the site of Christ’s baptism on the banks of the river Jordan, he also chose to meet 600 Syrian war refugees, including some disabled children, during his visit to Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

In a break with protocol, the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, personally drove the Pope in a golf buggy down to the spot where John the Baptist is believed to have baptised Jesus. After meeting the custodians of the site, the Pope then stood for some moments of silent prayer at the riverside. Moving on quickly, again with the King at the wheel of the golf buggy, the Pope then met the Syrian refugees in the nearby Latin Church, inaugurated by his predecessor, Benedict XVI during his visit to the Holy Land in 2009.

The Pope began by telling the refugees that he had wanted to meet them because they were people who had been forced out of their homes and country “as a result of violence and conflict”, adding: “For our part, we are profoundly affected by the tragedies and suffering of our times, particularly those caused by ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. I think particularly of Syria rent apart by nearly three years of civil strife which has led to countless thousands of deaths and forced millions to flee and seek exile in other countries...”

The Pope also used the occasion to thank Jordan and the Jordanian people for the “generous welcome” that they have extended to more than 600,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Renewing his “heartfelt” appeal for an end to the conflict in Syria, the Pope also called on the international community “not to leave Jordan alone” in the task of dealing with the millions of Syrians currently displaced by the fighting.

Every move and every gesture by visiting heads of state to the Holy Land carries its own political impact and meaning. Thus Francis’ decision to start his visit in largely Muslim Jordan today was born not only out of a desire to highlight Syria’s suffering but also to stress the inter-faith counterpoint to a three-day trip that sees him visit Bethlehem in Palestine today and then Jerusalem on Monday. Likewise, it is not for nothing that two longtime friends of Francis, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Prof Omar Abboud of the Islamic Centre in Argentine, form part of the official papal delegation on this trip.

Whilst there is nothing new about a papal pilgrimage beginning in Jordan, it is very likely that the Pope’s decision to spend day two in Palestine before moving on to Jerusalem will not have much pleased the Israeli authorities.

For Israel, however, it will be of much more significance to hear just what he says when he celebrates mass today in Manger Square in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of the birth of Christ. His every word on the Israeli-Palestine conflict will be keenly assessed.

When he finally arrives in Jerusalem, Francis will then move on to the erstwhile “reason” for this trip when he meets with Ecumencial Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew II. In theory at least, this visit is intended to celebrate the anniversary of the meeting 50 years ago between Pope Paul VI and the then Patriarch Athenagoras, a meeting which effectively ended over 1,000 years of division and mutual excommunication by the Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics. The Pope’s visit ends with a full day in Jerusalem on Monday when, among other things, he will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust centre.