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The BBC's Brian Hanrahan, in Damascus
"The local clergy believe that admitting the Pope will improve Islam's image"
 real 56k

Monday, 7 May, 2001, 02:01 GMT 03:01 UK
Mosque visit crowns Pope's tour
Pope John Paul II and Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro with assembled clergy at the Umayyad mosque
Pope calls for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together
By Barbara Plett in Damascus

The Pope's visit to the Umayyad mosque in the Syrian capital Damascus was an historic highlight on his three-nation tour retracing the steps of Saint Paul.

Pope John Paul II began the day with an open-air mass for some 35,000 people at the city's Abbasid stadium.

As he entered the building on Sunday he was carried along by enthusiastic cheers from tens of thousands of people. They waved Vatican and Syrian flags and raised banners of welcome.

[The Pope's visit] is important because it is high time the barriers of ignorance, of mistrust be pulled down

Islamic official Farouq Akbik
The mood shifted quickly from excitement to worship, as the Pope led the audience in the biggest Catholic mass Syria had ever seen.

Speaking in French, he called on Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together for peace and understanding, driving home his theme of harmony among faiths.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians are hoping the Pope's visit will highlight the fact that they are a significant minority in this largely Muslim country, and that Christianity has deep roots here. There was also just plain excitement at seeing a world-famous leader.

"It was great... that minute he walked in, everybody was clapping, we were so happy. We had been trying to get tickets for the last five days... It was very nice to see him," said one worshipper.

Understanding Islam

Then there was a change in focus at the end of the day, as the Pope made history by entering the Umayyad mosque.

Pope in Damascus
The Pope is spending four days in Syria
Syria's Grand Mufti greeted his guest, and the two men went on to deliver speeches about the need for forgiveness and dialogue rather than conflict.

Islamic official Farouq Akbik said it was a ground-breaking moment in Christian-Muslim relations.

"It is important because it is high time the barriers of ignorance, of mistrust be pulled down.

"Once the Christians see the Pope is being warmly welcomed at the Umayyad mosque, then people will ask, what is this Islam, what is this religion? What is being presented to us is something very negative.

"It is high time we knew the real value of Islam, its beautiful teaching and this big, open heart for others."

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See also:

06 May 01 | Middle East
Pope heads for Golan Heights
06 May 01 | Middle East
Inside the Umayyad mosque
05 May 01 | Europe
In pictures: Pope in Syria
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
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