AMMAN, Jordan — On the first day of a whirlwind visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis spoke three times Saturday against the violence “lacerating” Syria and singled out for criticism those supplying and profiting from weapon sales to the embattled country.
Straying from his prepared remarks, the pope told an audience of Syrian refugees: “May God convert those who have projects of war. May he convert weapons manufacturers and traffickers so they become constructors of peace.”
The pontiff was not more specific. The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been provided with weapons by Russia and Iran. The rebels have been supported with arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya. The U.S. Congress has approved transfer of “light weapons” to rebels, but a large flow of U.S.-supplied arms has not been reported.
Francis, whose trip is designed in part to offer solace and support to dwindling Christian populations in the Middle East, praised Jordan for its atmosphere of religious tolerance and its care of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
“Such generosity merits appreciation by the international community,” he told Jordan’s King Abdullah II at a greeting ceremony.
The pope called for a “peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis and a just solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
Palestinian activists on social media immediately embraced the pope’s use of the term “just” as a sign he understands their position as the weaker power in the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict, which saw the most recent U.S.-brokered peace negotiations end in failure after nine months.
In his remarks, Abdullah praised Francis for his commitment to bettering relations between Muslims and Christians. The monarch also told him: “Your humanity and wisdom can make a special contribution to easing the crisis of Syrian refugees and the burden on neighboring host countries like Jordan.”
There are 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, as well as 700,000 who are unregistered, officials estimate. The refugee camps are now some of the largest cities in Jordan, and the influx has exacerbated the country’s economic problems.
Jordanian officials hope that the pope’s trip will encourage tourists and Christian pilgrims to see Jordan as “the other Holy Land” and come for a visit — and leave some money behind.
The pope called for greater “respect” for the religious freedoms of Christians across the Middle East, a minority whose numbers have shrunk because of sectarian violence and economic hardship.
In a ceremony at a Catholic church still under construction on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was baptized, Francis blessed a group of 50 Iraqi and Syrian refugees who asked the pope to help protect some of the most ancient, and most threatened, communities in Christendom.
“Pray for our future, blessed father,” Youssef, 38, a Syrian Christian who fled Damascus for Jordan late last year, told the pontiff as he received his blessing. Francis sprinkled the gathering with water from the river and told them, “Christ is with you.”
The pope heads to Bethlehem on Sunday.