Warm welcome for Pope in Syria
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Tens of thousands of worshippers gathered for a Mass led by Pope John Paul on the second day of his historic visit to Syria.
Dignitaries from the Roman Catholic church as well as the Greek and Syriac Orthodox communities attended, with the enthusiastic welcome by an interfaith congregation in stark contrast to the muted reception on the Pope's first stop in mainly Orthodox Greece.
Waving yellow-and-white Papal and Syrian flags and shouting: "John Paul, we love you -- John Paul, we welcome you," the crowd cheered as the Pope arrived at Abbassiyeen stadium in Damascus, with thousands having earlier lined the streets to glimpse him in the Popemobile.
Later in the day, John Paul II is set to become the first Pontiff to enter a mosque in Islam's 1,400-year history, with a joint invocation -- not a prayer -- with Muslim clerics at the ancient Omayyad Mosque in Old City of Damascus.
CNN's Brent Sadler said that with interfaith unity and increasing tension in the Middle East topping the agenda, the Pontiff is tackling some of the most difficult diplomatic and theological problems of his papacy during the trip.
On Saturday the Pope had began his visit to Syria with an emotional plea to Israel and its Arab neighbours to reach out for peace in the troubled Middle East.
John Paul II said he hoped that in the region, "fear will turn into trust and contempt to mutual esteem, that force will give way to dialogue, and that a genuine desire to serve the common good will prevail."
His appeal for "respect for the resolutions of the United Nations organisation," could appear to favour the Arabs and is likely to antagonise the Israelis, added Sadler.
It followed a fiery speech by President Bashar al-Assad comparing the suffering of Palestinians today with Jewish attacks on early Christians.
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.
The state-controlled Syrian media kept up the hardline rhetoric on Sunday, with a front-page editorial in the Al Thawra newspaper calling Israelis the "enemies of God and faith" and their state "a political movement, Zionist, nonreligious, it has no faith and was sent by neo-Crusaders as a bridgehead to oppress and enslave the region."
In a statement responding to Assad's comments, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior called on the 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.
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.
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.
In Greece, on the first stop of his tour, John Paul II sought to heal an ancient rift with a joint statement with Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos, saying: "We condemn all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism in the name of religion."
This followed an earlier appeal for God to forgive sins of "actions and omission" by Catholics against Orthodox believers during the 1,000 year split between the two traditions.
Christodoulos, who embraced John Paul II following the declaration, had only grudgingly accepted the visit -- made on the invitation of Greece's president -- and it was accompanied by protests by conservative Orthodox believers.
The six-day pilgrimage will conclude in predominantly Catholic Malta, where the pope will beatify two Maltese priests and a nun.
Pope moves to heal ancient rift
Greek Orthodox Church
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