Damascus Awaits the Pope

Trip to Syria Could Help the Region

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DAMASCUS, Syria, JAN. 30, 2001 (ZENIT.org).- The town long associated with the conversion of Paul of Tarsus is awaiting another historic moment: a visit by John Paul II.

The Pope himself last Thursday confirmed his visit to Syria, at the ecumenical ceremony for the closing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Father Paolo Dall´Oglio, who lives in the Deir Mar Musa Monastery, discussed preparations for the papal visit. His monastic and ecumenical community, nestled in a deep canyon in the desert north of the capital, is involved by vocation in dialogue with Islam.

«All Christians of the Middle East are a minority in the society they hope to build, based on common values, but also recognizing the worth of the spiritual, religious and symbolic force that Islam represents for the majority of the people,» Father Dall´Oglio said. «We have a great human liking for our neighbors and for their symbolic and spiritual world.»

The Christian Churches in Syria, where the constitution guarantees freedom of worship, have between 1 million and 1.5 million members, or 10% to 15% of the population. Damascus is the See of the Syrian-Orthodox, Melkite and Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate, but all Oriental Churches are present in the country except the Copts.

There is a small presence of the Latin Church and a very small number of Protestants in this land, where the two most numerous communities are the Greek and Armenian Orthodox. Because of this, John Paul II said, he is following in the footsteps of the Apostle to the Gentiles in order to promote unity among Christians.

The Pope´s trip to visit the places of faith, planned during the Jubilee, now takes place at a moment when Israeli-Palestinian tension is destabilizing the area. The papal visit will be a good test for the son and successor of Hafez Assad, the one-time strongman of the Middle East, as well as an opportunity for international recognition.

«Damascus is the symbol of very ancient cultural integration, a mediator between cultures of the East and ancient West,» Frederick Mario Fales explained. Fales is professor of the Ancient Near East at the University of Turin. He is also director, in Syria, of the archaeological excavations at Qatna, and author of Syria´s latest archaeological guide.

What is the Christian community of Damascus expecting from the papal visit?

«There must be freedom from the concept of conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations,» Fales said. «Even if there are historical and sociological reasons, this conflict must not be accepted from the political and cultural point of view. Islam and the Western world are two complex realities; harmony must be sought between them. The Pope is a great symbol of practical harmony, which frees us from moving toward irreversible conflicts.»

The Vatican is expected to announce the dates of the pontifical pilgrimage within the next few weeks.

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