Pope Praises Jordan Over Syria Refugees, Religious Freedoms

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AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Francis thanked Jordan on Saturday for its role in helping welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria’s civil war and praised the desert kingdom’s “climate of serene coexistence” between Christianity and Islam.

He also called for an "urgent" solution to the Syrian conflict as he landed in Jordan on a three-day visit to the Middle East.

Pope Francis met with King Abdullah and Queen Rania before giving a speech at their palace.

Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. Jordan is currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population, but Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.

"I thank the authorities of the kingdom for all they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region," Francis said. "This goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Francis is due to get a firsthand look at the plight of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees later Saturday when he celebrates Mass at Amman's international stadium and then meets with some 600 refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus' baptism.

Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria's population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's rule have fueled fears among the country's religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt. Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad.

“I take this opportunity to reiterate my profound respect and esteem for the Muslim community and my appreciation for the leadership of His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues taught by Islam and a climate of serene coexistence between the faithful of the different religions,” the pontiff said.

“Religious freedom is in fact a fundamental human right and I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Claudio Lavanga