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Pope in Syria peace appeal at start of Mideast tour

Pope Francis made what he called a "heartfelt appeal" for peace in war-torn Syria as he began a three-day pilgrimage to the Middle East.

AMMAN: Pope Francis made what he called a "heartfelt appeal" on Saturday for peace in war-torn Syria as he began a three-day pilgrimage to the Middle East.

Speaking to hundreds of Syrian refugees along the Jordan River, the Pope called for an end to the civil war which has cost more than 160,000 lives, urging "all parties to abandon the attempt to resolve issues by the use of arms and return to negotiations".

Jordan is the first stop on Francis's "pilgrimage of prayer" which continues Sunday in the Palestinian territories and Israel.

His landmark maiden visit to the Holy Land is chiefly aimed at boosting ties with Muslims and Jews, as well as seeking closer unity with Orthodox Christian leaders.

As he walked off the plane onto a red carpet at Amman airport, his white robes flapping in the hot desert wind, he was greeted by officials and two children dressed in traditional costume who handed him bouquets of irises, the national flower of Jordan.

After being greeted by King Abdullah II, Francis received a raucous public welcome from 40,000 pilgrims as he arrived to celebrate a mass at Amman's main international stadium, the biggest gathering of his trip.

Entering the stadium in an open-topped white jeep, he smiled and waved enthusiastically at the crowds, his white skullcap flying off in the breeze.

Babies and toddlers were passed through the crowd to be held by him for a moment and blessed, as thousands of balloons were released into the air.

"Peace is not something which can be bought, it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives," he told the crowd packed into a sea of blue and red chairs on a sweltering May afternoon.

The 77-year-old pontiff called on the world to help Jordan deal with its "humanitarian emergency" caused by a massive influx of 600,000 refugees from neighbouring Syria.

Speaking at the royal palace, the pontiff also called for a "just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," after US-brokered peace talks collapsed last month.

Abdullah himself drove the pontiff a couple of kilometres in a golf cart to the reputed site of Jesus's baptism on the River Jordan, chatting avidly to Francis who was squeezed in besides him, in another sign of the pontiff's famed informality.

At two different sites along the riverbank, Francis stood for a few minutes in silent prayer, his head bowed, before being driven on to meet and pray with 600 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, who told him of their suffering.

Earlier, he called for religious freedom to be upheld throughout a region ravaged by war and bloodshed.

"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," he said.

In an unscripted message at the end of his speech alongside the Jordan River, Francis railed against those fuelling conflict in the region, saying he would "convert the violent, those who have designs for war, those who manufacture and sell weapons."

Ahead of his arrival in a region marked by political and religious division, the Argentine Pope said he felt like the biblical prophet Daniel heading to the lions' den.

"I feel like Daniel, but now I know that the lions don't bite," he told reporters travelling with him on his plane.

At the stadium mass, he revelled in the raucous greeting of pilgrims as he toured the crowd in his open-topped vehicle, reaching out to grasp hands as people pressed around his slowly-moving jeep on all sides, prompting scuffles with the security detail jogging alongside.

"This Pope is special," said 77-year-old Sister Rachel, highlighting his dedication to the downtrodden.

"He only wants to see the poor and the diseased. He is the protector of the helpless."

Early on Sunday, the Pope will take a short helicopter flight across the River Jordan to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus in the southern West Bank.

There he will hold a mass for around 10,000 pilgrims in Manger Square and begin his two-day tour of the Palestinian territories and Israel.

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