His only previous trip to the Middle East had to be cut short after the outbreak of one of its worst crises - the 1973 Yom Kippur War that pitted Israel against Egypt and Syria.

Yesterday, more than 40 years on from his last visit as a young priest, Pope Francis returned - and again, found himself pleading for an end to the region's conflicts.

Embarking on the first leg of a three-day trip around the Holy Lands of Jordan and Israel, the Pontiff rejected the stringent security measures normally adopted by world leaders while visiting one of the world's most unstable regions.

Keen, as ever, to come across as down-to-earth and accessible, he turned down his Jordanian hosts' offer of a luxury armoured car and greeted well-wishers in Amman from the relatively exposed position of an open-topped jeep. It was said to be the most modest vehicle in the possession of Jordan's royal court.


Later, visiting the site on the River Jordan where Jesus is believed to have been baptised by John the Baptist, he took the relaxed approach a step further, travelling within the grounds of the site in a small open-sided buggy.

The 77-year-old Pope's insistence on unostentatious humility was in line with the earnest content of his message, which included urgent pleas for peace in Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians, while drawing attention to the plight of millions of refugees across the region.

He also voiced support for the Middle East's diminishing Christian population, many of whom have fled because of threats and fears of persecution.