In Visit to Mosque, John Paul II Asks for New Era of Dialogue

Enters Muslim Temple in Damascus

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DAMASCUS, Syria, MAY 6, 2001 ( After removing his shoes, and with a slow but steady step, John Paul II today became the first Pope to enter a mosque, calling for brotherhood between Christians and Muslims.

The Pontiff went into the Omayyad Mosque accompanied by Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro, the highest Muslim religious authority of Damascus.

While entering the mosque, surrounded by Muslim religious leaders, members of the Syrian government, and leaders of the Catholic Church, who came from all over the world to participate in the historic event, the Pontiff admired the beauty of the temple of the Omayyads in which, according to tradition, the head of John the Baptist is preserved. The saint is known as «Yahya» by Muslims.

The sacred enclosure summarizes Syrian history, as it has been in turn a pagan temple, Christian church and Muslim mosque. John Paul II proposed a new era of relations between Christians and Muslims, so that there will be no misuse of religion «to promote or justify hatred and violence,» he said.

«Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction,» said the Pope, who is retracing the biblical travels of St. Paul the Apostle on a six-day pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta.

Following the visit to the sacred enclosure, John Paul II went to the patio of the mosque, where he heard verses of the Koran read and the litany of the names of Allah, God. Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro then delivered an address that had religious and clearly political tones.

He first cordially welcomed «His Holiness John Paul II, president of the Vatican State,» to the principal temple of Damascus, «cradle of prophets,» and affirmed that «Islam is the religion of brotherhood and peace.»

«We all adore the same God,» the Muslim sheik said. «Peace comes from our God and it returns to him. We are expressions of peace. God, Allah, calls all his creatures to peace, to belief in love.»

Shortly after, he pronounced harsh words against the state of Israel, accusing it of «sacking mosques» in the Holy Land. In particular, he opposed the blockade of access to the El Aqsa mosque of Jerusalem, Islam´s third most sacred place. He also wondered «where peace is to be found in the United States.»

The tone of the Holy Father´s address was very different. He concentrated on relations between Christians and Muslims.

«For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness,» he said. «Jesus teaches us that we must pardon others´ offenses if God is to pardon us our sins.»

This new era of dialogue and collaboration between Muslims and Christians «will lead to many forms of cooperation, especially in responding to the duty to care for the poor and the weak,» he said. «These are the signs that our worship of God is genuine.»

Hours before the meeting, in statements to reporters, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls revealed that John Paul II was very moved by the respect and affection that Syrian Muslims showed him.

Navarro-Valls said the Pope was aware of the importance weight implied in the first visit of a Pope to a Muslim mosque, and he hopes it will bear new fruits in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

The Vatican spokesman stressed that the Holy Father´s hope is that Islam, Judaism and Christianity will overcome historical differences and be able to work confidently in the service of their brothers.

On Monday, the third day of his visit to Syria, the Pope will go to Quneitra, in the Golan Heights, a town occupied by Israel since 1967, and destroyed at the end of the Six-Day War. There he will pray for Mideast peace, before returning to Damascus, where he will meet Syrian youths in the evening. On Tuesday he heads to Malta.

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