Amman: Pope Francis arrived today in Jordan, kicking off a three-day trip to the Middle East that will see him get a firsthand look at the plight of Syrian refugees and witness the toll the civil war next door is taking on Jordan.
His plane touched down at Amman`s Queen Alia International Airport, where an honour guard and Catholic leaders met him on arrival. On the flight, the pope told journalists that the trip would be "challenging," but rewarding.
"My heart beats and is looking to love," he said.
Despite a cold and fatigue that forced him to cancel some recent appointments, Francis seemed in fine health on the flight and greeted each of the reporters traveling with him one-by-one, even posing for a "selfie" photograph.
After meeting with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the royal palace, Francis is due to celebrate Mass today in Amman`s International Stadium.
The Vatican expects some 25,000 people to attend, many of them Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Later, he will meet one-on-one with 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 per cent of Syria`s population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting against 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.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Francis wants to offer comfort to all Christians who live in the region and encourage them to stay.
"These Christians are living stones, and without their presence, the Holy Land and its holy sites risk becoming a museum," Parolin told Vatican Television on the eve of the trip.
Jordan last month opened a third camp for Syrian refugees, a stark indication of the strains the civil war is creating for the country.
The sprawling facility is designed to accommodate up to 130,000 people and potentially become the world`s second-largest refugee camp.
Jordan is hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 per cent of its population. Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.
For the Syrian Christians who will greet Francis, his presence is a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the conflict drags on.