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Sunday, 6 May, 2001, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Inside the Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque in Damascus
The Umayyad mosque is one of Islam's holiest sites
By Barbara Plett in Damascus

A melody in a minor key echoes over the narrow streets of old Damascus. This is not the ordinary sound of the Muslim call to prayer.

It is a carefully preserved Byzantine tune. And it comes from the Umayyad mosque at the heart of the city, built on land that has been sacred for three millennia.

We welcome anyone who believes in God

Yehyia al-Ush, mosque guide
There was once a temple here for the Roman god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St John the Baptist.

Finally after the Arab conquest in the 7th Century, the mosque was built. This is the site that Pope John Paul II has chosen for the first ever papal visit to a mosque.

He is in Syria on a personal pilgrimage retracing the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. But he is also eager to promote Christian-Muslim relations.

All worshippers welcome

The music is coming from a room deep within the mosque. It is small, with bare white walls. In the middle stands a microphone connected to the mosque's speakers, surrounded by a group of singers.

Christian Syrians greet Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Damascus
The Pope has received an enthusiastic welcome in Syria
"These songs are a very old tradition, and we have done our best to preserve them," says one of them, Mohammed Ali Sheikh.

Outside in the courtyard, a nearly full moon hangs in the sky above one of the minarets. Its pale light reflects off the marble floor and gilded mosaics that are connected by the pillars of enormous archways.

I am speaking to a guide, Yehyia al-Ush, who tells me that this is one of the holiest places of Islam, a house of God for everyone.

"Even a Christian like me?" I ask. "Of course," he says. "You can have a special way to be with God in your heart. We welcome anyone who believes in God."

Religious tolerance

His words are repeated by other visitors who have come to pray or stroll through the vast courtyard. It is not so unexpected that Muslims here would welcome a Christian leader to their place of worship.

Islam respects all prophets of the Bible; it sees them as part of a common journey of faith.

Muslim man in prayer
Muslims prepare to welcome a Christian leader
And Syria has a remarkable degree of religious tolerance in a region often plagued by sectarian tensions. There is even a Christian shrine in the mosque - the tomb of the head of St John the Baptist.

"Muslim women go to that tomb and make supplication to God to the grace of St John the Baptist if they cannot get pregnant, or if they need money or want a child cured," says Farouq Akbik, a spokesman for the Grand Mufti, Syria's top Islamic leader.

"So you see around that beautiful place a lot of Muslims invoking God through the grace of St John, and this very tomb is going to be visited by the Pope on Sunday to pay homage to this great saint."

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See also:

05 May 01 | Europe
In pictures: Pope in Syria
05 May 01 | Middle East
Syria plea for Pope support
04 May 01 | Europe
In pictures: Pope on tour
29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
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