Pope reaches out to Christians, Muslims and Jews
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP)- John Paul II on Sunday became the first pope to enter a mosque, stepping into a historic shrine along with Muslim leaders, after making a fervent call for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work for peace.
Vatican and Syrian flags decorated the Omayyad Mosque in the old walled city at the heart of modern Damascus. The pope drove in his popemobile through the area’s narrow streets, emerging from the gloom of a covered market lane into the square in front of the mosque to be greeted by Syria’s top Muslim cleric, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro.
Earlier, to cheers of ”Pope John Paul II, we love you!” the Roman pontiff dressed in gold robes rolled into a Damascus soccer stadium on his popemobile for a Mass that attracted thousands.
”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,” the pope told the stadium crowd, speaking in French.
He appeared tired. His words were heavily slurred, a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, the progressive neurological disorder from which the pope suffers.
John Paul was in Syria on the second leg of a pilgrimage retracing the biblical travels of St. Paul the Apostle. After beginning his tour in Athens, he next goes to the Mediterranean island of Malta on Tuesday.
His efforts to bring together three of the world’s major religions had met a cool response a day earlier.
The pope called for a ”new attitude of understanding and respect” among Jews, Christians and Muslims. But at an airport arrival ceremony on Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad referred to Jewish persecution of Jesus in a vivid reminder of the passions that stand in the way of peace.
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 Muhammad,” Assad had said.
In Israel, the response was stern.
”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,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior said in a statement issued to reporters in Israel late Saturday. He called on Catholic leaders to reject such statements ”with revulsion.”
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, though, told reporters Sunday that ”the pope will absolutely not intervene. We are guests of this president and he has expressed his opinion.”
But Navarro-Valls added that the church and John Paul both have spoken out against anti-Semitism ”on numerous occasions.”
John Paul went as a pilgrim to the Omayyad Mosque. Christian pilgrims regularly enter the mosque to see a shrine believed to contain the head of John the Baptist.
The site where the mosque stands has a religious history stretching back 3,000 years. It was initially a place of worship dedicated to the Semitic god Hadad and later became a temple of the Roman god Jupiter. Following the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the temple was converted to a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist,
It is believed that Christians continued to worship at the church for several decades after the capture of Damascus by the Muslim Arabs in 636. The Muslim ruler al-Walid turned the compound into a mosque in the early years of the 8th century.
A planned joint Muslim-Christian prayer at the mosque was canceled, apparently because of fears of wounding Muslim sensitivities. But both Vatican and Syrian officials described the visit as a significant development in Catholic-Muslim relations.
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