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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 20:27 GMT
Pope to pray in mosque
Pope John Paul II
The Pope is continuing his trip to the Holy Land
John Paul II is to become the first leader of the Catholic Church to set foot in a mosque when he visits Syria in May, a church official said on Monday.

The Pope is hoping that by entering the Umayyed mosque in Damascus - the site of the tomb of John the Baptist - he will underline his attempts to bring Christianity and Islam closer together.

Umayyed mosque
Built in eighth century AD
The site previously held pagan temples and a Christian church
It contains the tomb of John the Baptist
It is the oldest stone mosque in the Muslim world

Officials organising the Pope's itinerary, said it would be the first time that Christians and Muslims would pray together in an organised way.

The Pope, 80, would lead the Christian side of the prayer and Syria's mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Kataro, the Muslim side.

Footsteps of Paul

In 1986, Pope John Paul was the first Pontiff to enter a synagogue after he visited one in Rome.

The mosque visit is scheduled for 6 May in the middle of the pope's three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, which has already taken him to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Umayyad mosque
The Umayyad mosque: Site of the tomb of John the Baptist
Besides Syria, Pope John Paul wants to visit Greece and Malta to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, who was known as Saul of Tarsus before he was converted on the road to Damascus.

The mosque, known as the Great Mosque of Damascus and one of Islam's most celebrated shrines was once the site of an Aramaic temple.

Then, in the first century AD, a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter was built on the site, before being converted into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.

Saint John is also venerated by Muslims as the prophet Yahya.

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See also:

10 May 99 | Europe
Analysis: A 1,000-year divide
24 Mar 00 | Middle East
The Pope's personal pilgrimage
24 Mar 00 | Middle East
Pope tour reaches climax
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