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Pope to call for Mideast peace
ATHENS, Greece -- Pope John Paul II is to appeal for peace in the Middle East during his historic visit to Syria on Saturday.
He is flying to the country on the second leg of his six-day controversial pilgrimage following the steps of Saint Paul.
His message is expected to be delivered from the Golan Heights city of Quneitra, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and returned under an United States'-negotiated agreement in 1974.
Syria is where Saint Paul converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, and the Pope will become the first Catholic leader to enter a mosque when he visits the tomb of John the Baptist.
The visit will follow a 24-hour stay in Greece, where he managed to overcame initial hostility among the Greek Orthodox Church to issue a joint statement with the church's Archbishop Christodoulos.
The declaration, made after a pilgrimage to Arios Pagos hill where Saint Paul made his famous sermon to the "unknown god," said: "We condemn all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism in the name of religion."
Earlier in the trip the Pope had asked God to forgive Catholics for sins committed against Orthodox Christians during the 1,000 year split between the two traditions.
Vatican officials hoped the trip would improve relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims.
"For the occasions past and present, when the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by actions and omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg," the Pontiff said in an address to Christodoulos.
John Paul II was first Roman Catholic leader to visit Greece -- where more than 95 percent of the population are baptised in the Orthodox Church -- since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.
He specifically cited the 1204 sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders, as an act that he said filled today's Catholics with "deep regret."
The declaration followed a roasting by Christodoulos, who told the Pope that an apology was needed for grievances ranging from the Great Schism of 1054 to a lack of publicly expressed concern over the divided island of Cyprus.
"Traumatic experiences remain as open wounds on (the Greek people's) vigorous body," Christodoulos said. "Yet until now, there has not been heard even a single request for pardon."
Christodoulos, who grudgingly accepted the pontiff's visit to Greece after the government invited him, burst into applause at the Pontiff's response and the two men later embraced.
Large-scale opposition to the Papal visit appeared to fade just hours before John Paul II's arrival following pressure from the government and mainstream church leaders who condemned anti-tour demonstrators as members of fringe religious groups.
But some conservative Orthodox believers still released black balloons with signs reading "Pope go home," rang church bells in mourning and lowered flags to half-mast.
Authorities were still taking no chances and more than 5,000 police have been patrolling Athens with demonstrators blocked from coming near the city's Roman Catholic cathedral before the Pope's scheduled appearance.
"The Vatican is the house of deception and criminal activity," shouted a Greek Orthodox cleric, Metropolitan Stephanos, through a bullhorn.
In the last decade John Paul II has worked hard at dialogue with the Orthodox church, with visits to Orthodox countries including Romania and Georgia.
But the backlash is more intense in Greece, where the Orthodox clerics portray themselves as guardians of both the nation's ethnic identity and the heartland of the world's more than 200 million Orthodox faithful.
The Pope is to end his pilgrimage in Malta.
Pope moves to heal ancient rift
Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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