Pope Francis will arrive in Jordan on Saturday at the start of a Middle East tour aiming to boost ties with Muslims and Jews as well as easing an age-old rift within Christianity.
The Vatican has billed Francis’ first visit to a region roiled by religious and political differences as a “pilgrimage of prayer,” saying the Pope will shun bulletproof vehicles in favour of open-top cars despite security concerns.
Israeli authorities have moved to lessen the possibility of trouble by issuing restraining orders against 15 right-wing Jewish activists this week, ordering them to stay away from sites being visited by Francis, after a string
of hate attacks on Christian sites.
“It will be a purely religious trip,” the pope told some 50,000 pilgrims at his last general audience in St Peter’s Square before his three-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Francis said the main reasons for the trip were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I – a key Orthodox leader – and “to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much”.
That ceremony in which he will take part in a special joint prayer with Bartholomew on Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – venerated as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – is seen by the Vatican as the highlight of the visit.
The Pope will also meet with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, in an interview with French daily Le Figaro, said he attached “great importance” to the Pope’s trip, calling Francis “a man of noble humility”.
“I don’t think the visit is going to bring the signing of a peace deal tomorrow, or even the organisation of a conference, but I am sure that it will make a substantial contribution because the pope respects all cultures and all religions,” Peres said.
The Pope’s visit comes as vandals defaced a church in southern Israel in a suspected hate crime on Friday, police said.