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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Pope breaks new ground
John Paul II
John Paul II: Retracing the path of the apostle
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

The continuation of a Pope John Paul II's personal pilgrimage through the lands of the Bible is of great significance to a man now in the twilight of his papacy.

We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of St Paul

John Paul II
Following in the footsteps of St Paul, he is visiting Greece, Syria and Malta.

His visit to Greece is one of his most controversial overseas visits in almost 23 years of travelling the world.

It is the first papal visit to Greece in modern times - as his papacy draws towards a close, John Paul II seems determined to reach out to other faiths.

Archbishop Christodoulos
Archbishop Christodoulos will not "close the door" on the Pope

After his visit to Greece, he flies on to Damascus and the scene of St Paul's conversion, where he will become the first pope to set foot inside a mosque, a gesture aimed at improving the Vatican's relations with Islam.

The symbolic meeting of the two faiths will take place at the Umayyad Mosque, built in the 8th Century AD. It is the oldest stone mosque in the world, and has significance for Christians because it contains the tomb of John the Baptist.

The Vatican says it will be the first time that Muslims and Christians have prayed together in an organised way.


He will return to Rome via the staunchly Catholic island of Malta, where St Paul was shipwrecked.

President Stephanopoulos
Invitation from President Stephanopoulos
Ironically, while the Pope can look forward to a cordial welcome in Muslim Syria, his 24-hour trip to Greece, beginning on Friday, has already caused a storm of controversy.

Many priests of the Greek Orthodox Church are upset over the visit by a man they refer to as "the arch-heretic" and "the grotesque, two-horned monster of Rome".

So while the Vatican is hoping to improve relations with leaders of the Orthodox Church, parish priests in Greece are talking about flying black flags and ringing their church bells as a sign of mourning.

The church does not want to say no to the pontiff

Holy Synod of Greece
The hostility towards Rome dates back a thousand years, to the Great Schism of 1054 that split the Christian church into Eastern and Western branches.

Today, in a country of 11 million people, there are about 200,000 Catholics, including Greeks and foreign residents. Orthodox Christianity is the official religion.

Greek Orthodox followers regard theirs as the true faith, and accuse Rome of attempting to impose its supremacy over the Christian world during past centuries.


The sacking of Constantinople, at the hands of Catholic crusaders in 1204, is still a source of bitterness.

The formal invitation was made by President Stephanopoulos during a visit to the Vatican earlier this year.

Two years ago, plans for the Pope to visit Greece were called off after similar protests.

Now the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, says he will not "close the door" on the Pope, because he is coming to the country as a pilgrim.

The Pope intends to go to the hillside where St Paul preached to Athenians in the first century.

In a recent encyclical, John Paul invoked the mission of the saint: "We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul who cried out 'Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel'."

For a man who will be 81 this month, and who appears increasingly frail, John Paul shows great reluctance to slow down.

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29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
24 Feb 00 | Middle East
Pope pleads for harmony between faiths
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