AMMAN, May 24- Pope Francis headed for Jordan Saturday at the start of a Middle East tour aimed at boosting 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 ordering 15 rightwing Jewish activists to stay away from places being visited by the pope, after a string of hate attacks on Christian sites.
“It will be a purely religious trip,” the pope told pilgrims at his last general audience in St Peter’s Square before a three-day visit that takes him to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Francis said the main reasons for the trip were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I and “to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much”.
A joint prayer service with Bartholomew 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 meeting is fitting, given that Francis has made the ideal of unity of the Christian Churches, one of the priorities of his papacy.
The pontiff will also meet 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,” he said.
The 77 year old Argentine pope has already set the tone for a trip rich in symbolism by inviting two old friends from Buenos Aires to join him, Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud.
– ‘Oasis of peace’ –
Hours before the pope’s early afternoon arrival in Amman, Christians had piled onto buses from around Jordan to head for the Amman stadium where Francis will celebrate mass.
Sister Rachel, 77, said “we are already singing for him to become a saint,” highlighting his dedication to the downtrodden.
Francis will meet King Abdullah II before the mass then head to a site on the banks of the River Jordan where many believe Jesus was baptised. There he will hear first hand of the suffering of Syrian refugees, 600,000 of whom are living in Jordan, and offer an opportunity for him to reiterate his calls for an end to the three-year war.
He is also expected to touch on the forced migration of Christians from the Middle East.
“Because of the global popularity that Francis enjoys, if he comes to the Holy Land and says ‘I have your back’ it may mean something to Christians,” John Allen, Vatican expert for the Boston Globe, told AFP.
Although only 250,000 Jordanians identify themselves as Christian — in a Muslim country of seven million — Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur said the visit would show the kingdom as an oasis of peace in a turbulent region of “blood, wars and repression.”
Early Sunday, the pope will make a short helicopter ride to Bethlehem, the West Bank town where Jesus was born. He will meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas before celebrating mass in Manger Square.
Afterwards he will chat with Palestinian children and lunch with refugee families.
He will then fly to Tel Aviv where he will be greeted by President Peres before heading to Jerusalem.
– ‘Balanced’ –
On Monday, the pope will visit the Al Aqsa Mosque compound and meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein.
He will then visit the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that supported the second Jewish temple and the holiest site at which Jews are allowed to pray, before going to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
He is then set to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and celebrate mass in the Cenacle, where Christians believe Jesus held the Last Supper memorialised in the mass.
Rabbi Skorka said Francis would try to avoid political pitfalls in the sensitive region by dividing his visits equally among Jewish Israeli sites and Muslim or Christian landmarks in Palestinian territory.
“He will try to be balanced,” Skorka told journalists in Jerusalem.
The Cenacle stop has inflamed the ultra-Orthodox and nationalists since Jews revere part of the building as the tomb of King David.