Holy Land trip underway, Pope Francis begins in Jordan

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(CNN) — Pope Francis arrived in Jordan on Saturday on the first leg of a trip to the Holy Land during which he is expected to promote unity and call attention to the poor and downtrodden.

Descending the steps of the plane in Amman, he was greeted by a throng of local dignitaries and clergy.

Small groups of cheering supporters lined the road, waving flags and chanting “Long live the pope,” as his motorcade left the airport at the start of his visit.

In Jordan, the pope will greet some of the 600,000 Syrians that have fled since the start of the civil war in 2011, as well as refugees from Iraq. He will also celebrate Mass and visit the River Jordan, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.

The Holy Land trip is the first for Francis as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and just the fourth for any pontiff in the modern era.

The pope will visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem alongside Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book with the pontiff, and Sheikh Omar Abboud, who leads Argentina’s Muslim community.

The religion of the pope’s traveling companions, both of whom hail from his home country, Argentina, is no coincidence.

“It’s highly symbolic, of course,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.

“But it also sends a pragmatic message to Muslims, Christians and Jews that it’s possible to work together — not as a system of checks and balances but as friends.”

In Bethlehem, Frances will greet children from refugee camps, celebrate Mass in Manger Square, lunch with Palestinian families, and visit the site of Jesus’ birth. The pope is expected to call for a Palestinian state, which has long been Vatican policy.

And in Jerusalem, the pontiff will meet the city’s grand mufti and chief rabbis, visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, a memorial to the Holocaust, and lay a wreath on the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He will also celebrate Mass at the site of the Last Supper.

The papal visit will include high-profile encounters as well.

Francis will meet with King Abdullah II in Jordan, with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem, and with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres while in Jerusalem.

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