24/05/2014 10:47 BST | Updated 24/05/2014 10:59 BST

Pope Brings Message Of Religious Tolerance To Middle East, Travelling With A Rabbi And A Muslim

Pope Francis has begun his tour of the Middle East with a plea for religious tolerance, as part of a visit aimed at sending a message of hope to the region's troubled and dwindling Christian population.

Touching down in Jordan, the Catholic leader will meet Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Bethany, where according to tradition is the place Jesus was baptised.

The Pope was met at the airport by Prince Ghazi, the advisor to the King on religious affairs, and handed flowers by two children in traditional Jordanian dress.

Pope Francis (R) blesses Palestinian reporter Imad Freij aboard the papal flight on his way to Amman, Jordan

With an iron security presence across Amman for the start of the 32-hour visit with 16 events, the pontiff began with a speech to King Abdullah urging an end to Syria's three-year-old civil war and to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is set to say Mass at the Ammnan stadium, where many had gathered hours in advance.

"This great 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," he 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 pontiff will travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Sunday and Monday, flying from Jordan to Bethlehem by helicopter.

Francis will thus avoid the awkward PR of having to enter through Israel's controversial security barrier from Jordan to the West Bank. In Bethlehem, Francis will preside over Mass in Manger Square, near where Jesus is believed to have been born. He will also a visit a refugee camp and meet children at the Phoenix Centre whose families were displaced. The Pope specifically requested to meet "families with someone who was martyred, injured or jailed − and also some ordinary people as well", the centre's director, Mamoun Lahham announced.

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The official Vatican programme calls it a visit to "the State of Palestine", a wording likely to raise heckles in Israel, which condemned the Vatican in 2012 when it supported a vote at the United Nations General Assembly to grant Palestinians de facto statehood. Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi has said that the use of "state of Palestine" reflects the UN general assembly's 2012 resolution, according to the Guardian.

But despite this show of support from the Holy See, the Palestinian Christian population is shrinking rapidly, their economic prospects dim and their movement restricted by the occupation.

The theme of the visit is religious harmony, and Francis is travelling accompanied by a rabbi and an Islamic leader, friends from when Francis was a cardinal in Argentina. In Israel, the streets are hung with banners from west Jerusalem lamp posts to welcome him.

Pope Francis (C) is accompanied by Jordan's King Abdullah II during a meeting at the Royal Palace in Amman

But with tensions running high in the region with the most recent breakdown of peace talks, the message of unity is having little effect on some. Jewish extremists have scrawled anti-Christian graffiti, "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel," on church property in Jerusalem. More was found just hours ago on the wall of a church in the southern city of Beersheba, the BBC reported.

Almost 9,000 police have been drafted in specifically for the visit. Pre-empting disruption, Israel's security forces have issued retraining orders on Jewish right-wing activists they fear might have planned major action, according to the Jersusalem Post.

For that minority of Jewish militants, the most controversial is the Pope's visit to the Cenacle, believed by Christians to be the site of the Last Supper, and by Jews to be the site of the Tomb of King David. It is also a sacred place for Muslims, as a mosque from Ottoman times. It has been rumoured that the Israeli government plans to hand over control of the site to the Vatican, in exchange for a settlement in a long-running dispute over taxation of church property.

Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who all visited Jerusalem, with Benedict the last to visit in 2009.