Jordan Hopes Papal Visit Would Push for Peace as Pope Says 'Purely Religious'

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Jordan expressed hope Wednesday that Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land would help the cause of regional stability as the pontiff said his trip is entirely devotional and aimed at praying for peace and improving relations with other branches of Christianity.

"It will be a purely religious trip," the Argentine pope told some 50,000 pilgrims at a general audience in St Peter's Square ahead of three-day trip to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories starting on Saturday.

Francis said the main reasons for the trip -- billed a "pilgrimage of prayer" by the Vatican -- were to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and "to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much."

The visit kicks off on Saturday when Francis flies to Amman and meets Syrian refugees. He will then travel on to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, wrapping up the visit on Monday with a mass in the place where Christians believe Jesus had the last supper with his disciples.

There has also been opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jews over perceived Vatican designs on holy sites in Jerusalem.

Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend of Francis who will be traveling with him, said the pontiff would try to avoid political pitfalls in the sensitive region by dividing his visits equally between Jewish Israeli sites and Muslim or Christian landmarks in Palestinian territory.

"He will try to be balanced," Skorka told journalists in Jerusalem.

"He's going to make meaningful contact and interaction with the Palestinian people. But when he comes to Israel, I'm not sure whether the previous Popes went to Mount Herzl (the site of Israel's Holocaust memorial) to lay flowers there."

Pope Francis is to pray at the Western Wall, the site of the first and second Jewish temples, and to visit Israel's national cemetery on Mount Herzl before going on to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Skorka condemned opposition by ultra-Orthodox Jews to the Pope's visit.

"I'm totally against them (demonstrations against the visit). This is a visit by someone who is seeking a road to peace and dialogue and he should be received with open arms," Skorka said.

"We cannot remain and live in a vicious circle of hate."

Hundreds gathered last week near the reputed scene of Jesus' last supper in Jerusalem, demanding that Israel keep sovereignty over the site where Pope Francis will celebrate mass.

Jews revere the site as the tomb of King David, which is on the ground floor of the same building. The site is also important for Muslims.

It is currently the subject of negotiations between Israel and the Vatican, which hopes to recover the site, but no official agreement has been announced.

Meanwhile, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Momamni told a news conference Wednesday that "the pope's May 24-26 visit carries a lot of meanings of peace."

"We hope the visit will push for achieving peace and stability in the region, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," said Momamni, who is also information minister.

Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur told a group of journalists that "the pope's visit will show Jordan's civilized image and will show that the kingdom is an oasis of peace and security in a turbulent region with a sea of blood, wars and repression."

Francis will visit Jordan on Saturday for a few hours at the start of his first Middle East trip.

He will meet King Abdullah II, celebrate mass in a stadium and meet Syrian refugees -- giving him a chance to speak out against the war there as well as the forced migration of Christians from the Middle East.

Jordan is home to around 600,000 Syrian refugees.

The kingdom will issue special stamps marking Francis's visit as well as the 50th anniversary of a visit of Pope Paul VI to the country in 1964.

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