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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Analysis: Bridging religious divides
Pope John Paul II
Saying sorry: The Pope's plea for reconciliation
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

The journey of John Paul II through the lands of the Bible has been more than just a personal pilgrimage.

During the past six days, he has followed in the footsteps of the apostle Paul through Greece, Syria and Malta.

In doing so, the Pope has been making a conscious effort to bridge the religious divides of centuries.

His trip to Greece, home of the Orthodox Church, was one of the trickiest of his pontificate.

Schism

He became the first Pope to set foot in the country since the Great Schism of 1054 that split Christianity into its eastern and western branches.

It needed some delicate diplomacy between the Vatican and the Greek state, and pressure on the Orthodox Church not to block the historic trip.

Archbishop Christodoulos
Archbishop Christodoulos welcomed apology

With some Greek priests protesting over the arrival of the "arch heretic" from Rome, and police lining the streets, there was a risk that the visit would simply reinforce the old hostility.

But the Pope delighted his hosts by asking for forgiveness for past sins by "sons and daughters of the Catholic Church" against their "Orthodox brothers and sisters".

The Greeks had been waiting almost a thousand years for that apology, and the present leader of the Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, embraced the pope.

Other church leaders in Athens described the pontiff's words as "very positive" and said the time had come to look forward and try to create a sound dialogue with Rome.

Syria visit

Moving on to Syria, John Paul II then created another piece of religious history by becoming the first pope to enter a mosque, a symbolic act of friendship towards Islam.

Maintaining his theme of reconciliation, the Pope said that Christians and Muslims needed to seek forgiveness for the times they had offended one another in the past.

Umayyad Mosque
First papal visit to a mosque

The final stop on his tour took the Pope to the staunchly Catholic island of Malta, where he was assured of a rapturous reception, free from any controversy.

In one address, the Pope seemed to be making a reference to the nature of his journey when he spoke of the need for "mutual respect and forgiveness" in today's world.

As the papacy of John Paul II moves inevitably towards a close, there are many in the church who believe a major part of his legacy will be the efforts at reconciliation with other faiths.

Last year, as part of his millennium visit to the Holy Land, he sought forgiveness for the persecution of the Jews by Christians through the ages.

Errors

During his papacy, John Paul II has demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and improve the Vatican's relations with other religions.

As far back as 1986, he visited a synagogue in Rome, and many of his overseas visits since his election in 1978 have taken him to countries where tensions exist between Catholicism and other faiths.

President Stephanopoulos
President Stephanopoulos of Greece

The fact that the Pope continues to make such arduous trips has surprised some observers. He will be 81 later this month, and for a man suffering from Parkinson's disease, the physical demands on him are great.

Yet despite his frailty, he appears determined to continue his travels. Next month a visit to Ukraine is planned, and he remains hopeful that one day he will be able to go to Russia.

But before that, he has domestic matters to consider.

Later this month, cardinals from all over the world are being summoned to Rome to discuss the direction the church should take in the new millennium.

It is a workload that would tax a younger and healthier man. The Pope struck a personal note in a message to others who have been slowed down by age and illness.

"I remember and feel very close to the elderly," he said before a Mass in Malta.

"To the sick, I say: have hope and be strong."

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See also:

12 Mar 00 | Europe
Pope apologises for church sins
09 May 01 | Europe
Last day of Pope's pilgrimage
29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
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