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The BBC's Brian Hanrahan, in Damascus
"The Pope said there was a need for a just peace"
 real 56k

Trevor Mostyn of the Catholic paper The Tablet
"The Pope always tries to remain out of the political arena"
 real 28k

Specialist in religious nationalism Chrystos Mylonas
"The crusades contributed to the division between the two churches"
 real 28k

Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK
Syria plea for Pope support
The Pope arrives in Syria
The Pope was greeted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
At the start of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has criticised the Israelis, accusing them of killing and torturing Palestinians.


Justice demands that Syrian and Palestinian lands should be returned to their owners

President Bashar al-Assad
The Pope was still at the airport when President Bashar launched his verbal attack, plunging the pontiff into the turmoil of Middle East politics.

"Justice demands that Syrian and Palestinian lands should be returned to their owners," President Bashar said in his welcoming speech.

He asked the Pope to remember in his prayers the suffering of the people of the Golan Heights and of Palestine.

"We expect you to stand by them," he said.

In reply, the Pope appealed for all parties to seek a lasting peace and a new attitude of understanding, based on international law.

Christian Syrians greet Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Damascus
The Pope received an enthusiastic welcome
"We all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the people of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahimic religions," he said.

He described his four-day pilgrimage - during which he is retracing the steps of Saint Paul - as an ardent prayer of hope.

The pontiff was warmly greeted in Damascus by enthusiastic crowds waving flags and chanting "We love you, John Paul" and "Syria welcomes your Holiness".

Building bridges

It is his first trip to Syria as part of his continuing attempts to build bridges between Christians and Muslims.

On Sunday he will become the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church ever to enter a mosque.

Preparations for the Pope's arrival
Syrians hope the visit will boost their country's image
The Vatican says the visit to the Umayyad mosque - one of the holiest sites in Islam, as well as the scene of St Paul's conversion - will also be the first time that Muslims and Christians have prayed together in an organised way.

In recent years, the Vatican has declared the relationship with the Muslim world as being of pivotal importance and has been putting increasing time and energy into improving relations.

Syrians have been hoping that the visit of a world-famous leader will improve their country's often negative image.

The authorities have been accused of political oppression and sponsoring terrorist groups, but correspondents say there is a high degree of religious tolerance in the country, in a population of diverse faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

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See also:

05 May 01 | Europe
In pictures: Pope in Syria
04 May 01 | Europe
Greek fury over Pope visit
29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
04 May 01 | Europe
In pictures: Pope on tour
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
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