Pope Francis arrived in Jordon Saturday afternoon, beginning his three-day tour of the Holy Land accompanied by a rabbi and a Muslim cleric from his home country of Argentina. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged that the pope be given access to persecuted Christians.
After departing from Rome's Fiumicino airport, the pope touched down in the Jordanian capital Amman at around 1 p.m. local time Saturday, Vatican Radio reported.
Even as Francis tours Jordan, Palestine and Israel over the course of the weekend, USCIRF has expressed hope he will be allowed to meet with Christians.
The pope's visit comes "amidst a spike in so-called 'price tag' attacks on holy places," USCIRF said in a statement Friday. "In recent years, such attacks – property crimes and violent acts in retaliation for activity deemed to be anti-settlement – have targeted Christian and Muslim religious sites and properties, it said.
Also in recent weeks, "politically-motivated vandals have been responsible for a number of attacks on churches and have used anti-Christian and anti-Arab slurs in their assaults," the watchdog added. "We encourage efforts to hold perpetrators accountable for attacks and vandalism on holy places and religious sites. We also encourage, to the extent possible while guaranteeing the pontiff's safety and security, access to Pope Francis for Christians of all nationalities and all who wish to pray with him."
The tour marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's visit to the region.
While the official purpose of the pope's visit is to improve ties with the Orthodox Church, the pope is believed to have four goals, according to National Catholic Reporter.
The first is ecumenical, as he will meet with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I.
It is believed that the pope's visit will likely signal a change in how the Catholic Church relates with the Jewish community and the Orthodox Christian Church.
The second goal is interreligious, as Francis is traveling with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires and Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic.
The third goal is to encourage Christians in the Middle East who face extremism and violence.
The fourth is to bring about peace in the Middle East, especially a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
After his arrival Saturday, Francis is scheduled to visit the al-Husseini Royal Palace in Amman to meet with the king and queen of Jordan, according to The Associated Press. He will later meet with Jordanian officials, and leave for Holy Mass at the International Stadium in Amman.
In the evening, the pope will visit Bethany beyond the Jordan, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. He will then meet with Syrian refugees and disabled young people at church in Bethany, according to the newswire.
On Sunday, Francis will visit the presidential palace in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, and meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders. He will then proceed for Holy Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square, near the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.
The pope will have lunch with Palestinian families in Bethlehem in the afternoon, and thereafter make a private visit to the Grotto of the Nativity inside the Bethlehem basilica, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The pope will then greet Palestinian children in a refugee camp.
On Sunday evening, he will arrive in Tel Aviv, and proceed to Mount Scopus, just outside Jerusalem's Old City.
Also in the evening, Francis will hold a private meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and sign a joint declaration, followed by ecumenical meeting in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
On Monday, Francis is scheduled to visit to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, at the Al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem's Old City, followed by a visit to the Dome of the Rock.
He will also visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and lay a wreath at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery.
The pope will then meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres at his official residence, and also have a private audience with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Francis is also scheduled to meet with priests and seminarians in the Church of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
Francis will depart for Rome Monday evening.
The pope "is very welcome in Israel and he will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were," Jerusalem Post quoted Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor as saying after Francis announced his intended visit a few months ago.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also welcomed the announced visit, saying he hoped it would "contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence," according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Jordan's Royal Palace said it would mark a "significant milestone for brotherhood and forgiveness between Muslims and Christians and consolidates the message of peace."