Pope John Paul began a historic pilgrimage to Syria on Saturday with an emotional plea to Israel and its Arab neighbors to turn "fear into trust" to end decades of war in the Middle East.
His tour in the footsteps of St Paul the apostle, already a landmark of inter-faith unity for his groundbreaking gesture of reconciliation with the Orthodox Church in Greece, was to include the first visit by a Pope to a Muslim mosque.
In his address at Damascus airport, the Pope 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 visit, the first to Syria by a Pope, will give a boost to the 2.4 million Christians among Syria's 17 million people.
President Bashar al-Assad, who along with government ministers and clerics gave the Pope a warm welcome, called on the frail 80-year-old Pontiff to stand by the Arabs in their struggle to regain their land and their rights from Israel.
"We feel that in your prayers in which you recall the suffering of Jesus Christ, you will remember that there is a people in Lebanon, the Golan (Heights) and Palestine that is suffering from subjugation and persecution," he said.
"We expect you to stand by them against the oppressors so that they could regain what was unjustly taken from them."
Assad, who stirred a storm in March by saying Israelis were more racist than Nazis, said the suffering of Arabs under Israeli occupation was similar to the biblical suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of first century Jews.
He said Israel was killing Palestinians, violating justice, occupying Arab land and attacking Muslim and Christian religious sites.
ARDENT PRAYER OF HOPE
In response, the Pope quickly got to the heart of his hope for the trip, to encourage all sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict to change their attitudes and seek lasting peace.
"My pilgrimage is also an ardent prayer of hope," said the Pope, who on Monday will pray for peace at a town in the Golan Heights near the border with Israel.
"It is time to return to the principles of international legality; the banning of acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations and the Geneva convention," he said, repeating a statement he made last January at the Vatican.
He did not mention Israel by name, but that section of his speech appeared to be a reference to the Jewish state, which is locked in conflict with the Arabs over the return of occupied land in exchange for peace.
After a short break, the Pontiff had a 20-minute private audience with Assad at the presidential palace in which the Syrian leader spoke about the history of Christianity in Syria, church sources said.
The Syrian state news agency Sana quoted the Pope as telling Assad "Syria remains young in history and today it is led by a young man. That is why everyone expects a lot from her."
The Pope shared his first prayers in Syria with Greek Orthodox bishops at the ancient Byzantine Mariyamiya church, which has a fine collection of 18th century icons.
Outside the church, located in the Christian quarter of Old Damascus, the Pope received a tumultuous welcome from an enthusiastic crowd in festive mood, in sharp contrast with his controversial visit to mainly Orthodox Greece.
The fervent crowd broke through the security cordons around the "Pope-mobile," wanting to touch him to get his blessing. Security forces had to push them back to allow the tired-looking Pontiff to go into the church.
"It is like a dream come true. We've been waiting for him for a long time to visit us," said Nadia Laham, an elderly woman. "He is a preacher of peace."
The Pope's delicate pilgrimage of religious and political peace will take him to the demolished town of Quneitra, which Israel returned in 1974 after capturing it from Syria along with the rest of the Golan Heights in the Six Day War of 1967.
He said true and lasting peace would be achieved only if there was a "new attitude of understanding and respect" among Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.
Waving papal and Syrian flags, about 1,500 students cheered and chanted "We love you, John Paul" and "Syria welcomes your Holiness" when he emerged from his plane where Assad waited to shake his trembling hand. The Pope blessed Syrian soil offered to him in a wooden box wrapped with Syria's flag.
Wearing his traditional white robe, the Pope arrived in Damascus from a trip to Greece that may prove a turning point in Roman Catholic ties with the Orthodox Church.
On Friday he had asked forgiveness for the wrongs done by Roman Catholics to Orthodox Christians since the Great Schism of 1054 split the Church into eastern and western branches.
In a mass before leaving, he said all Christians should show "passion" for eventual unity between all branches of Western and Eastern Christianity.
During his four days in Syria, the tireless Pontiff will pursue the theme of unity and reconciliation between religions by becoming the first Pope to visit a mosque.
He will recite a joint invocation -- not a prayer -- with Muslim clergymen at the ancient Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
John Paul's pilgrimage retraces the steps of St Paul, the Jew who converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus and later preached in Athens and Malta on his way to Rome.
Damascus, the world's oldest inhabited city, has given the Roman church six popes as well as saints and priests over the centuries, and John Paul acknowledged its ancient role in the history of Christianity, calling it the "pearl of the East." – DAMASCUS (Reuters)
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