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  • 24 May 2014, 14:43

Pope's Delicate Mission In The Middle East

Pope Francis has arrived in Jordan at the start of a whirlwind three-day tour to the Middle East.

During the visit the head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics will also visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, hold talks with national leaders and deliver 13 speeches - all in just over 48 hours.

The Vatican says the aim is raise awareness of the exodus of Christians from the region in the face of increasing persecution, as well as to call for support for refugees and greater unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

In an effort to promote inter-religious dialogue, the Pope will be accompanied by a Rabbi and an Imam, both close friends from his home city of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

But while the Vatican insists the visit is a religious mission, the programme is fraught with potential political stumbling blocks, and every word delivered will be subject to intense scrutiny.

The 77-year-old Pontiff was welcomed at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, by an honour guard, Catholic leaders and Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, King Abdullah II's chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs.

He was then due to meet the King before the first public mass of the visit where he is expected to address the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

He will then travel to visit the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptised at Bethany, before meeting with Syrian refugees and disabled young people.

On Sunday, he will fly by helicopter to Bethlehem, where he will hold a meeting with President Abbas before commencing the largest public mass of the visit in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity.

Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun says she believes his message will be one of hope for many Palestinians.

"The Pope is an adamant believer in peace, and adamant believer in the right of the discriminated-against and the marginalised", she told Sky News.

"When he comes here, he will be praying for peace to the Palestinians, praying the message of peace from the place that the message was ordained."

Following the mass he will meet with children at the Deheisheh Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem, before heading to Tel Aviv to receive an official welcome to Israel from President Shimon Peres, and then on to Jerusalem.

The 50th anniversary of an historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras, which ended hundreds of years of division between the two branches of Christianity, will be marked by a joint prayer meeting of Catholic and Orthodox priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The final day of the visit will see Pope Francis visit the grounds of the Al Aqsa Mosque as well as the Western Wall, the most holy site in Judaism, and the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, before a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The visit will conclude with a mass at the Cenacle in Jerusalem, the site at which the last supper is thought to have taken place.

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