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2001: Thousands greet Pope in Syrian visit

Thousands of people have turned out to greet Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to Syria.

The pontiff drove in his popemobile through the narrow streets and was greeted by Syria's top Muslim cleric Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro.

Sheik Kuftaro said: "This is an occasion that goes beyond history and will begin the process of putting peace to work in the world."

The pontiff replied: "For me, too, it is a very important day. I am very happy."

Vatican and Syrian flags decorated the Umayyad Mosque in the old walled city of Damascus.

Security officers held back a crowd of curious onlookers from a nearby souk who were craning for a look at the visitor from Rome.

Plea for peace

The Pope, who called on Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together to bring peace to the Middle East, became the first pontiff to enter a mosque.

As required by Muslim custom, John Paul II removed his shoes and put on white slippers before entering the mosque.

The 80-year-old, who has Parkinson's disease, stumbled slightly at the threshold of the mosque and again crossing the main hall.

John Paul II asked for a joint act of contrition, saying: "For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another...we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and offer each other forgiveness."

At the tomb of St John the Baptist the Pope paused for a minute's silent meditation. He spent 95 minutes in the mosque, which was built in AD 705 on the site of a Christian church.

The pontiff also met Agnatios Hazim IV, the Syrian-Greek Orthodox archbishop, at the Church of St Paul on the Wall in the Syrian capital.

Earlier in the day, the Pope attended a four-hour Mass in a Damascus stadium.

In Context
The Pope's visit to Damascus was overshadowed by a furious row between Syria and Israel.

On his arrival, Syrian president Bashar Assad accused Israel of trying to "kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and...the Prophet Mohammed".

This sparked a stern response from Israel, who urged world leaders to "condemn" such statements.

Israel called on Roman Catholic leaders to reject such statements "with revulsion" but a papal spokesman said: "The Pope will absolutely not intervene. We are guests of this president and he has expressed his opinion."

The Pope's visit was part of a six-day pilgrimage in the steps of St Paul, whose conversion occurred on the way to Damascus. His trip also included Greece and Malta.

The Pope died at 2137 (1937 GMT) on Saturday 2 April 2005 after he failed to recover from a throat operation.


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