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Pope Makes History in Syria

``I come as a pilgrim of faith ... to some of the places especially connected with God's self-revelation and his saving actions,'' he said the day he arrived. ``My ministry as bishop of Rome is linked in a special way to the witness of St. Paul, a witness crowned by his martyrdom in Rome.''

MONDAY MAY 7, 2001

Mosque visit crowns Pope's tour

The Pope's visit to the Umayyad mosque in the Syrian capital Damascus was an historic highlight on his three-nation tour retracing the steps of Saint Paul.

Pope John Paul II began the day with an open-air mass for some 35,000 people at the city's Abbasid stadium.

As he entered the building on Sunday he was carried along by enthusiastic cheers from tens of thousands of people. They waved Vatican and Syrian flags and raised banners of welcome.

The mood shifted quickly from excitement to worship, as the Pope led the audience in the biggest Catholic mass Syria had ever seen.

Speaking in French, he called on Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together for peace and understanding, driving home his theme of harmony among faiths.

"It was great... that minute he walked in, everybody was clapping, we were so happy. It was very nice to see him," said one worshipper.

Understanding Islam

Then there was a change in focus at the end of the day, as the Pope made history by entering the Umayyad mosque.

Syria's Grand Mufti greeted his guest, and the two men went on to deliver speeches about the need for forgiveness and dialogue rather than conflict.

Islamic official Farouq Akbik said it was a ground-breaking moment in Christian-Muslim relations.

"It is important because it is high time the barriers of ignorance, of mistrust be pulled down.

"Once the Christians see the Pope is being warmly welcomed at the Umayyad mosque, then people will ask, what is this Islam, what is this religion? What is being presented to us is something very negative.

"It is high time we knew the real value of Islam, its beautiful teaching and this big, open heart for others."

Pope Makes History in Syria

May 7, 2001

Pope John Paul II, who yesterday made history by becoming the first pontiff to visit a mosque, sided with the Palestinians by calling indirectly on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For the first time in 1,400 years of Muslim history, a pope entered a mosque. The Pope was greeted at the Umayyad mosque in the centre of Damascus's old city by Syria's leading Muslim cleric, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro. 

As required by Muslim custom, the Pope removed his shoes and put on white slippers before entering the mosque. 

His trip has been billed as a journey in the footsteps of St Paul, whose conversion occurred on the way to Damascus.

On arrival at Damascus airport, the Pope called on the nations to abide by international law: "It is time to return to the principles of international legality: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations organization and the Geneva conventions."

Pope Visits Ruined City in Syria

QUNEITRA, Syria (AP) - Pope John Paul II took his message of religious reconciliation to the Golan Heights on Monday, offering a prayer for peace in a town where buildings smashed by war with Israel stand as a reminder of continuing conflicts in the Mideast.

Applause broke out as John Paul entered a Greek Orthodox church that, like the rest of Quneitra, is in ruins. Several children approached the pope to be kissed and blessed, and aides helped the frail 80-year-old kneel. He prayed silently for several minutes.

The visit to Quneitra was part of the pope's four-day tour of Syria, where he has tried to reach out to Muslims and Christians alike. On Sunday, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, in the walled old city in Damascus.

On Monday, he stopped at the Church of St. Paul on the Wall, built to honor the first-century Christian hero, before heading to Quneitra, which tradition says St. Paul passed through on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus.

For John Paul, modern Mideast politics shaped the visit.

``Quneitra had four mosques and three churches,'' read another banner. ``The calls from the minarets and the tolling of the church bells are no longer heard and the worshippers were driven out.''

Syria refuses to rebuild Quneitra, saying it should stand as a monument to Israeli crimes until the entire Golan, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, is back in Syrian hands. Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have stalled.

Mohammed Anis Hussein, a Damascus civil servant who was among those taken to Quneitra Monday, said reports of the papal visit would show the world ``there are people under occupation and moved from their land.''

The Vatican has repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution that would return land captured in war to its original owners. The pope was unlikely to be more explicitly critical of Israel during his Syrian pilgrimage, which ends Tuesday.

The pope has said his trip is also an opportunity to trace Christian historic sites such as the Church of St. Paul. 

The pope said his main goal in Syria was to be inspired by history, not to make it.

``I come as a pilgrim of faith ... to some of the places especially connected with God's self-revelation and his saving actions,'' he said the day he arrived. ``My ministry as bishop of Rome is linked in a special way to the witness of St. Paul, a witness crowned by his martyrdom in Rome.''

At St. Paul on the Wall, icons show St. Paul being lowered in a basket over the wall to safety. He made it back to Jerusalem and later traveled around the Roman empire to preach the gospel. He was believed executed in Rome because of his preaching.

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