Pope John Paul heads to Malta on Tuesday to beatify two priests and a nun, after a landmark journey to Syria in which he became the first pope to enter a mosque.
The pope, 80, will wrap up a hectic three-country pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul that began in Greece on May 4. It was a trial for his frail health, but he completed his schedule during the first two legs without apparent problem.
The pope retraced the steps of St. Paul the Apostle, prayed for Middle East peace on the frontline Golan Heights and, perhaps most significantly of all, became the first pope to go into a mosque in Islam's 1,400-year history.
But, as on previous trips around the world, his time in Syria was not free of political controversy. He heard sharp attacks against Israel as people from the president down to children urged him to take a blunt stand against "the enemy."
In his address welcoming the Pope on Saturday, President Bashar Al Assad said Israelis today had the "same mentality" as those who betrayed and tortured Jesus Christ.
Outraged by Assad's fiery comments, Israeli President Moshe Katzav called Assad an "anti-Semite and racist" and urged the Vatican to respond to Assad.
On Monday, the United States condemned Assad's remarks.
"Our view is that these comments are as regrettable as they are unacceptable. There's no place from anyone or from any side for statements that inflame religious passions and hatred," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
"We hold with the pope's call for reconciliation. That is really the only way forward, especially in these difficult times and the only way to achieve what all parties profess to want."
GOLAN PRAYER, MOSQUE VISIT
The pope prayed on Monday in the devastated Syrian town of Quneitra on the contested Golan Heights.
He urged Arabs and Israelis to be merciful and forgiving seekers of peace even amid news of more bloodshed in the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, including the Israeli killing of a Palestinian baby girl in Gaza.
"We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East. Help them to break down the walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity," he said.
But the highlight of the Syria trip was when the Pope stepped into the Great Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City of Damascus on Sunday.
After making history, the pope, who revolutionized ties with the Jews by visiting Rome's synagogue in 1985, said it was now time to turn the page with Islam too.
"For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness," he said in his address to Muslim religious leaders.
On Monday night, the Pope was mobbed by thousands of young people when he visited a cathedral of the Greek Melchite rite.
The young people, singing and dancing, thronged around the "pope-mobile" as it arrived outside the cathedral in Damascus, causing havoc for the Pope's security men.
In his speech, read in French and Arabic translation, the pope urged young people to keep Gospel values in their lives and promote good relations between all Christians in Syria.
After four days in Syria, the Pope ends his trip in predominantly Catholic Malta, presiding at a beatification ceremony for two Maltese priests and a nun who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries – DAMASCUS (Reuters)
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