Pope Francis will hear first-hand accounts of the horrors of Syria’s war when he meets refugees in Jordan Saturday as he begins a three-day visit to the Holy Land.
The Argentine pope will meet Christians and Muslims forced to leave their homes and flee to the neighbouring desert kingdom, now home to more than 600,000 refugees and the first stop on Francis’ trip ahead of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
He will pray with the refugees and hundreds of disabled youths, cancer patients and orphans at Wadi al-Kharrar on the eastern bank of the river Jordan, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist.
Many pilgrims who will flock to see him there, and at an open-air mass in the capital Amman, want Francis to use his visit to make a strident call for peace across the border in Syria.
“He needs to see the situation of Christians in Syria. He needs to see what terrorism did to them and to their heritage,” said Norma, 30, from the ancient Christian settlement of Maalula, recently recaptured from rebels by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“In the past we lived in harmony and coexistence, but now Syrian Christians are in danger,” she said, reflecting the view of many Christians — Roman Catholic and Orthodox — who sided with Assad, fearing the harsh Islamist ideology of some rebel factions.
Rula Hajjar, a 26-year-old Christian woman who fled the northern Syrian city of Aleppo told AFP: “We want the pope to highlight the suffering and agony of the Syrians and work on restoring peace to Syria.”
– ‘Pope not doing enough’ –
In all, some 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict since it began in March 2011, according to Gregory Laham, Syrian Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
Father Rifat Bader, spokesman for the papal visit to Jordan, said Francis’ trip would be a show of support for Christians across the region.
“Christian brothers from Syria and Iraq have fled violence and religious persecution. Christians in the region have become under threat since the war on Iraq in 2003.”
Over the past decade, Bader said, “two million Christians have left the Middle East.”
Some Christian refugees accuse the pope and other religious leaders of complacency.
“The pope and Christian clerics are failing Christians in the region by not doing enough to demand their rights and protect them,” said Nadi Daoud, 59, an Egyptian Copt, who was forced to leave his restaurant business behind in Syria.
“They need to push hard to end what is happening in Syria. We want Christians to live in peace,” said Daoud as he waited outside a church to receive an aid voucher from the Catholic charity, Caritas, which provides assistance to 350,000 refugees of Jordan’s refugees.
Ghazi Sayegh, 40, who fled the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, said: “There is a systematic forced displacement of Christians in the region.
“We want the pope to get the right message and help restore peace in Syria so we can go home.”
Although only 250,000 Jordanians identify themselves as Christian — in a Muslim country of seven million — Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur told journalists the visit would show the kingdom as an oasis of peace in a turbulent region of “blood, wars and repression”.
The 77-year-old pontiff will begin his visit with a courtesy call to King Abdullah II and Queen Rania before celebrating mass at Amman’s international stadium.
Later Saturday, he will head to the baptism site in the Jordan Valley, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of the capital.
He will leave Amman on Sunday morning by helicopter to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he will celebrate mass in Manger Square, before heading to Israel in the evening.