In Syria, Pope Calls 3 Faiths to Work for Peace

50,000 Attend Mass in Damascus Stadium

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DAMASCUS, Syria, MAY 6, 2001 ( At a critical moment for Mideast peace, John Paul II appealed this morning to Christians, Muslims and Jews to work together for the advent of the day «when the legitimate rights of all peoples are respected, and they can live in peace and mutual understanding.»

The heat and punishing pace of his marathon pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul did not rob the 80-year-old Pontiff of emotion and enthusiasm.

About 50,000 people, most of them youths, gathered in the Abbasid Stadium of the Syrian capital, and gave the Pope an overwhelming welcome. On hand were Muslims, attending their first Mass.

The Sunday liturgy was, above all, a homage to Saul of Tarsus, who conversion on the road to Damascus changed the course of history. The Pontiff spoke about the commitment that the region´s Christians must have.

«With all your compatriots, without distinction of community, continue tirelessly your efforts to build a society marked by fraternity, justice and solidarity, where everyone´s human dignity and fundamental rights are recognized,» the Pope said during the homily, often interrupted by the crowd´s applause. Boys and girls waved Vatican and Syrian flags.

«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 legitimate rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding,» he said.

This is not a Utopian objective for Christians because, as John Paul II explained in French, «the Gospel is a powerful element in the transformation of the world. By your witness of life, may people today find the response to their deepest aspirations and the foundations for social coexistence!»

The Pope was heard by pilgrims from several countries of the region, especially Lebanon. The stadium was full of welcoming signs in several languages. The Mass was celebrated in Arabic and French.

The Prayers of the Faithful were recited in Armenian, Aramaic, Chaldean, Syrian, Arabic and
English. Catholics participating in the Mass belonged to several rites. The Pontiff was welcomed by Greek Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Antioch.

«Be proud of the great liturgical and spiritual traditions of your Churches of the East!» the Holy Father said. «They are part of the heritage of the one Church of Christ, and are bridges between people of different persuasions.»

Representatives of the Orthodox Churches in Syria also attended the Mass. John Paul II thanked them for their attendance, testimony of the «fraternal relations» that exist in this country between Christians of different confessions. In total, they constitute 10% of the population. Syria is 90% Muslim.

«This joyful news should inspire all Christ´s disciples to seek ardently the paths of unity,» he said. «By making their own the Lord´s prayer, ´may they all be one,´ they will bear witness in an ever more genuine and credible way.»

The Pope called on families to be faithful and open, and encouraged them to «always» defend the right to life from conception, and reminded them of the importance of prayer and the Christian formation of their children. Lastly, he encouraged Syrians to be lucid and to open themselves fearlessly to the world.

At the end of the Mass, the Pope dined in the Greek-Catholic Patriarchate with Syrian patriarchs and bishops. He expressed appreciation that in these lands Catholics live in harmony with the Orthodox and Muslim communities.

The Holy Father noted the problem of emigration, which especially affects Christian youth. Many of them, seeing the country´s 30% unemployment rate, do not envision a future for themselves in Syria.

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