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First Ever Pope to enter Muslim Mosque

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    First Ever Pope to enter Muslim Mosque

    Pope to Enter Muslim Mosque - And History Books

    By Nadim Ladki

    DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Pope John Paul (news - web sites) on Sunday will become the first Pontiff to enter a mosque in Islam's 1,400- year history, moving Christian-Muslim relations onto a new level of coexistence.

    On the second day of a pilgrimage to Syria to trace the steps of St. Paul the apostle, the frail 80-year-old Pope is also expected to promote messages of inter-faith unity and Middle East peace at a Sunday mass for Syria's various Christian sects at a sports stadium in Damascus.

    Tens of thousands of the Christian faithful are expected to attend the mass at Abbassiyeen Stadium in the heart of the capital. Some 2.4 million Christians live among Syria's population of 17 million.

    A few hours after the mass, the Pope will make history when he recites a joint invocation -- not a prayer -- with Muslim clerics at the ancient Umayyad Mosque in Old City of Damascus.

    The Pope began the historic pilgrimage to Syria on Saturday with an emotional plea to Israel and its Arab neighbors to reach out for peace in the troubled Middle East.

    But if he needed a reminder of the deep hatreds in and around the Holy Land, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was there to reiterate a hard line against Israel.

    Assad, who in March said Israelis were more racist than Nazis, called on the Pontiff to stand by the Arabs in their struggle to regain their land and their rights from Israel.

    He likened the suffering of Arabs under Israeli occupation to the biblical suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of first century Jews.

    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.''

    The Pontiff later had a 20-minute private audience with Assad at the presidential palace in which the Syrian leader spoke about the history of religions in Syria.

    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 then 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 to the muted reception he received on his controversial visit to mainly Orthodox Greece.

    The Pope's delicate pilgrimage of religious and political peace will take him on Monday 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.

    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 Greece, he said all Christians should show ``passion'' for eventual unity between all branches of Western and Eastern Christianity.

    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.''

    The Pope's visit to Umayyad mosque is highly significant in his relations with Muslims. The magnificent mosque is a unique site that was once a church and a mosque at the same time.

    The site began as a pagan temple, was converted to a church for Saint John the Baptist after Christianity became the Roman Empire's religion in the 4th century and a mosque after the Arabs conquered Damascus in AD 639. Fax 2238425)

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