Damascus Looks Forward to John Paul II

Dialogue With Islam and Mideast Peace on Agenda

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DAMASCUS, Syria, MAY 4, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II on Saturday will continue his pilgrimage in St. Paul´s footsteps by going to Damascus, the capital of Syria, a country that is 90% Muslim. Most Syrians enthusiastically await the Pontiff´s arrival.

John Paul II is visiting Syria at a singular moment. In the past, political life had been dominated by the socialist Baath Party. Now, the one-party system is beginning to open up. President Bashar Assad, son of the late leader Hafez Assad, is trying to modernize the country, and has approached the European Union.

This nation of 16.3 million is in economic crisis, however. The unemployment rate tops 30%. Young people, especially Christians with few opportunities, are forced to emigrate to find work.

Another challenge is the stalled Mideast peace process. Syria is claiming restitution for the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel, but does not respond to calls for the withdrawal of its 35,000 soldiers from Lebanon.

The Pope will speak about peace and justice in Quneitra, a Syrian city destroyed during the war with Israel.

Yet, the papal trip is, above all, a return to the roots of the Church. It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus, relentless persecutor of Christians, was converted and became the greatest apostle of Christianity.

Archbishop Diego Causero, apostolic nuncio in Syria, told Vatican Radio that the visit will have an unexpected dimension for those who do not know the country.

«Here the Churches have a certain unity of spirit, despite the obvious fact that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches suffer division,» the nuncio said. «However, this unity of spirit can be seen in everything they do. The Holy Father´s trip has been planned here by a committee, in which Catholic and Orthodox bishops were together. The Pope´s first visit will be to the Greek-Orthodox cathedral.»

The Holy Father said in Wednesday´s general audience that his visit here is an attempt to foster relations with the whole Muslim world. In this connection, he will be the first Pope to visit a mosque.

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