Pope makes historic mosque visit
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Pope John Paul II has become the first Pontiff to enter a mosque during his groundbreaking pilgrimage to Syria.
The country's top Muslim clerics are escorting the Pope through Damascus' Omayyad Mosque, in what Vatican and Syrian officials describe as a significant development in Catholic-Muslim relations.
The site in the old walled city has a religious history stretching back 3,000 years, having been a place of worship for the Semitic god Hadad, a temple of the Roman god Jupiter, a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, before being turned into a mosque in the Eighth Century.
Christian pilgrims are still regularly to be seen there at a shrine believed to contain the head of John the Baptist.
Earlier on Sunday, nearly 40,000 worshippers gathered for a Mass led by John Paul II in the Abbassiyeen stadium in Damascus.
"Peace be unto you all," said the 80-year-old Pontiff, who appeared tired, greeting the crowd in Arabic.
CNN's Brent Sadler said that with interfaith unity and increasing tension in the Middle East topping the agenda, John Paul II is tackling some of the most difficult diplomatic and theological problems of his papacy on the second leg of his pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul.
During the mass he offered a fervent call for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together to bring peace to the troubled region.
"In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together with confidence and boldness and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding," appealed the Pontiff in French.
This sentiment appeared to be tested on Saturday when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a fiery speech when welcoming the Pope, comparing the suffering of Palestinians today with Jewish attacks on early Christians.
Israelis "tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Mohammed," declared Assad.
"We say we adhere to a just and comprehensive peace that returns the land to its original owners, and the return of refugees and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."
Sadler says Syria's leadership, with Assad having succeeded his late father, Hafez, less than a year ago, is seeking to maximize the political advantages of the visit, putting their plans for peace -- centring on Israel returning the disputed Golan Heights region -- to an international audience.
In response, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior released a statement calling on Catholic leaders to reject such statements "with revulsion."
"We hoped that after the Holocaust such statements would be a thing of the past and every leader of the enlightened world should condemn them," said Melchior.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that "the Pope will absolutely not intervene. We are guests of this president and he has expressed his opinion."
He added that the church and John Paul both have spoken out against anti-Semitism "on numerous occasions."
The Pope has received an enthusiastic welcome from crowds waving yellow-and-white Papal and Syrian flags, with Roman Catholic, Greek and Syriac Orthodox, and Muslim dignitaries attending events, in stark contrast to a muted reception during his first stop in mainly Orthodox Greece.
Despite having sent six popes to Rome, this is the first time the mainly Muslim nation has received one, and millions have been spent to ensure the success of the trip with roads and footpaths paved, and litter and graffiti removed.
According to tradition, Syria is where Saint Paul converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus with about two million Christians in the majority Muslim nation of 17 million today.
On Monday the Pontiff is due to travel to Qunaitra, now a virtual ghost town in the Syrian Golan Heights.
The city was occupied by the Israelis in 1967 and systematically destroyed before being returned to Syria seven years later.
The six-day pilgrimage will then conclude in predominantly Catholic Malta, where the Pope will beatify two Maltese priests and a nun.
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