AMMAN, Jordan — Pope Francis denounced arms dealers and appealed Saturday for an urgent end to the Syrian civil war as he began his three-day trip to the Middle East with an emotional meeting with refugees from Syria and Iraq who have fled to Jordan.
Francis deviated from his prepared remarks to make a strong plea for peace during his first day in Jordan, praying for God to “convert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons!”
“We all want peace, but looking at the tragedy of war, looking at the wounded, seeing so many people who left their homeland who were forced to go away, I ask, ‘Who sells weapons to these people to make war?’” he asked. “This is the root of evil, the hatred, the love of money.”
His tough words echoed the diatribe he delivered a few weeks ago against mobsters in Italy, denouncing their activities and praying that they turn away from evil to embrace a more dignified life.
The appeal during a meeting with war refugees came just moments after the pontiff bent down at the Jordan River, where some believe was the site of Jesus’ baptism, and touched the waters. And it capped an intense day at the start of his first visit as pope to the Holy Land.
“Vive il papa,” a group of schoolchildren waving Vatican flags shouted as the pope arrived earlier on Saturday at the royal palace for private talks with King Abdullah II, Queen Rania and their children.
Francis thanked Jordan for its “generous welcome” to Syrian refugees and called for an urgent resolution to the civil war next door.
“I urge the international community not to leave Jordan alone in the task of meeting the humanitarian emergency caused by the arrival of so great a number of refugees, but to continue and even increase its support and assistance,” he said.
Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp for Syrians, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. It’s 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.
Francis saw the refugee exodus firsthand, meeting with some 600 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan.
Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula who was on hand for the visit, welcomed the pope’s message.
“We hope that all parties will listen to His Holiness to leave weapons aside in order to restore peace in the whole world,” he said.
Francis also called for peace and reconciliation during an afternoon Mass at Amman’s windswept international stadium, urging the faithful to “put aside our grievances and divisions” for the sake of peace and unity.
Enormous blue balloons in the shape of a rosary, complete with a blue balloon crucifix, rose into the sky.
“Peace isn’t something which can be bought; it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives,” Francis said. The crowd, which the Vatican had estimated could exceed 25,000, gave him a warm welcome as he zipped around the stadium in his open-topped car, kissing children and youngsters who came up to him.
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 conflict. 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.