Pope Francis is preparing to embark on what he calls a “purely religious” trip to Israel and Jordan, accompanied by leaders of the Argentine Muslim and Jewish community. The Pope is expected to pray in Jerusalem and host a mass in Amman, Jordan, expected to be attended by 50,000 people.
Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Amman Saturday and meet with refugees of the Syrian civil war, later traveling to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and leaving the Middle East Monday. The Pope will bring with him Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud, both close friends of the Pope’s from his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The decision to bring leaders of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, said Skorka to NPR, made sense in the context of a city as diverse as Buenos Aires, where they all learned their craft as religious scholars. “We shared lot of experience – being together, Jews, Christians – learning [about the other],” he said, “…we were in touch, one with the other, maintaining each one his own tradition but knowing that there exists another, that the other can be your friend, being other.”
Pope Francis has described the trip as “purely religious,” refusing to ascribe any political overtones to the visit despite the tense climate in the region between religions and the particularly difficult situation of Christians living in the region. An Associated Press report this week notes that Christian leaders in the region are increasingly concerned that the religion is near extinction and has been reduced to about 2% of the population of the region, down from 10% before the founding of Israel. The situation has been exacerbated by the Syrian Civil War and tensions between Israel and Palestinian leaders.
In addition to visiting landmarks in Israel, the Pope will deliver a mass to an expected 50,000 people in Amman, at the Amman International Stadium, where he will be the third Pope to hold a mass. In addition to the mass, 1,400 children are expected to receive their First Communion during the ceremony. Father Rifat Bader, director of the Catholic Centre for Media and Studies (CCMS) and official spokesperson for the papal visit, explained to the Jordan Times that the logistics of providing such a ceremony for upwards of one thousand children will require bishops and other authorized clergy to approach the children with the Eucharist, rather than the traditional march down the aisle of the Church towards the priest holding the items used in the sacrament.