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Pope prays for peace in ruined Golan Heights city

QUNEITRA, Syria (AP) – Preaching from the rubble of a Golan Heights city that Syria showcases as a symbol of Israeli brutality, Pope John Paul II prayed Monday for peace and forgiveness in the Middle East.

The 80-year-old pontiff knelt for 20-minutes on a wooden stand on the shattered stone floor of a Greek Orthodox church – within view of an Israeli radar station across the valley.

”May all believers find the courage to forgive one another, so that the wounds of the past may be healed, and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present,” the pope said, looking exhausted on the third day of a pilgrimage to promote reconciliation.



Winds buffeted the area and chilled the inside of the church that, like the rest of Quneitra, is in ruins.

Applause broke out as John Paul arrived in a black limousine after a one-hour drive from Damascus and entered the church. The crowd of several thousand included former residents bused in for the day and U.N. peacekeepers from Austria who patrol the buffer zone separating Syrian and Israeli soldiers.




The Syrian government says Israeli forces sacked Quneitra before handing it back to Syria in 1974. Israel, which still holds most of the rest of the Golan Heights, says it was damaged in fighting.

The visit to Quneitra was part of the pope’s four-day tour of Syria, where he has tried to reach out to Muslims and Christians alike. On Sunday, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, in the walled old city in Damascus.

The Syrian government often invites visiting dignitaries to Quneitra, refusing to rebuild or let the residents return to keep it as a monument to Israeli ”crimes.”

”We couldn’t care less about the propaganda,” said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, responding to suggestions that the pope was being used by the Syrians.

He said the Vatican was pleased with how much Syrians and others in the Middle East ”appreciate the visit” by the pope.

John Paul was certainly the most important visitor to view the ruins. Former President Clinton did not make the trip when he stopped in Damascus in 1995.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has harshly attacked Israel during the pope’s stay, likening Israelis to those who betrayed Jesus and asking the Roman Catholic Church to side with the Arabs.

The pope, again, refused to be drawn in, instead repeating calls for the need for reconciliation.

”We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East,” he said. ”Help them to break down walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity.”

Vatican officials said the pope added mention of ”the sad news of conflict and even death” from the latest Israeli-Palestinian clashes. He also prayed that leaders in the region work to assure their peoples’ ”inalienable dignity” and fundamental rights.

John Paul emerged from the church to water a small olive tree – a symbol of peace. After a short tour of the battered town, he returned to Damascus.

The Syrian government bused in thousands of former Quneitra residents for the day, putting them before the cameras and reporters from around the world who have recorded the pope’s trip.

”The pope is very important. When he says something, a lot of people listen,” said Saba Esber, the Greek Orthodox metropolitan, or bishop, of the region that includes Quneitra. He was among a contingent of Syrian clergy in Quneitra to greet John Paul.

Quneitra was once home to about 50,000 people. Now only a few families live here – some making a living providing food and other services for the U.N. peacekeepers.

A banner in English and Arabic strung over the rubble of one Quneitra home Monday read: ”Our house was in this place. The Israelis demolished the house and the garden with all its flowers and trees is still thirsty.”

Mohammed Anis Hussein, a Damascus civil servant who was among those taken to Quneitra on Monday, said reports of the papal visit would show the world ”there are people under occupation and moved from their land.”

It would not be the first time that the Vatican went along with a host government’s plan during a papal visit. Vatican officials recall being asked to make a 60-mile detour during a visit to Bangladesh to view a monument to independence from Pakistan.

There have also been surprises. In Chile, former dictator Augusto Pinochet insisted John Paul join him on the balcony of the presidential palace, where the two men were photographed together.

In Havana, he celebrated Mass before a portrait of Cuba revolutionary leader Che Guevara.

John Paul’s trip, which began in Greece, moves on Tuesday to Malta. He will return to Rome the following evening.


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