Damascus Getting a Face-lift

Capital Prepares for Its First Papal Visit Ever

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DAMASCUS, Syria, APR. 29, 2001 (Zenit.org).- «The Pope should come every month,» Damascus residents joke, as they see the work being done to improve the streets and historical buildings of the Syrian capital, where John Paul II will arrive next Saturday.

«It is somewhat like the housewife who must put her mop and broom away, as her guests ring the doorbell,» Greek-Catholic Archbishop Isidore Battikha said. The archbishop is president of the commission in charge of organizing the papal visit.

John Paul II will visit Syria from May 5-8, after a trip to Athens, Greece, following in St. Paul´s footsteps.

People are joking that it was high time a Bishop of Rome visited, because up until now Syria had only «exported» popes, and never «imported» them.

«In the course of history, we have sent six Syrian popes to Rome, but we have never received the visit of a pontiff,» Archbishop Battikha confirmed. «This is the first visit of this kind to Syria.»

Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad will welcome the Pope at the airport and have a private audience with him in the presidential palace.

Almost 90% of Syria´s 16 million inhabitants are Muslims. Christians constitute 10% of the population. There are small Jewish communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli and Aleppo.

Syria is regarded in the region as a nation that promotes peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.

According to some archaeologists, Damascus, the oldest city in the world to be inhabited uninterruptedly, has been neglected for decades, given the allocation of funds for defense, because of the conflict with Israel. The papal visit is forcing the country to spruce up the city, observers note.

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