President Assad Encouraged in Peace Efforts

Pope Greeted by Syrian Leader at Airport

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DAMASCUS, Syria, MAY 6, 2001 ( On arriving Saturday in Syria, John Paul II appealed for peace in the Middle East in «the name of the one God.»

The Pontiff was greeted, as he stepped down from his plane, by 36-year-old Syrian President Bashar Assad, government officials, and three Christian patriarchs whose sees are in this country. Muslims comprise 90% of Syria´s population.

Hundreds of children waving Syrian and papal flags called the Pope by name. They cried out in Italian: «Viva, viva, viva il Papa,» and continued their cries when the Pontiff and president stopped to greet them.

Assad´s address was highly political. He accused Israel of violating international justice, occupying Arab territories, and attacking both Christian and Muslim sacred places.

The Pope´s reply had a very different tone. «I come as a pilgrim of faith continuing my Jubilee pilgrimage to some of the places especially connected with God´s self-revelation and his saving action,» he said.

The Holy Father´s conclusion elicited the applause of all, Christians and Muslims, in keeping with the spirit of his trip. Raising his voice, he said in Arabic: «As-salámu ´aláikum!» (Peace be with you).

Shortly before, the Holy Father had explained that violence is a contradiction for believers. «Together we acknowledge the one indivisible God, the creator of all that exists,» he said. «Together we must proclaim to the world that the name of the one God is a name of peace and a summons to peace.»

In regard to the «tensions and conflicts that have long troubled the region of the Middle East,» John Paul II expressed his confidence in the efforts for peace, despite the fact that «so often hopes for peace have been raised, only to be dashed by new waves of violence.»

Addressing Hafez Assad´s son directly, John Paul II continued: «You, Mr. President, have wisely confirmed that a just and global peace is in the best interests of Syria. I am confident that, under your guidance, Syria will spare no effort to work for greater harmony and cooperation among the peoples of the region, in order to bring lasting benefits not only to your own land, but also to other Arab countries and the whole international community.»

For real peace to come to the Middle East, the Bishop of Rome emphasized the need to establish a «new attitude of understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions.»

«Step by step, with vision and courage,» the Pope said, «the political and religious leaders of the region must create the conditions for the development that their peoples have a right to, after so much conflict and suffering.»

He added: «In this sense, my pilgrimage is also an ardent prayer of hope: hope that among the peoples of the region fear will turn to trust, and contempt to mutual esteem; that force will give way to dialogue; and that a genuine desire to serve the common good will prevail.»

In Israel, the reaction to President Assad´s airport speech was stern, the Associated Press reported. «We hoped that after the Holocaust, such statements would be a thing of the past and every leader of the enlightened world should condemn them,» Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior said, calling on Catholic leaders to reject such statements «with revulsion.»

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters on Sunday that «the Pope will absolutely not intervene. We are guests of this president and he has expressed his opinion.» He added that the Catholic Church and John Paul II have spoken out against anti-Semitism «on numerous occasions,» AP reported.

On Monday, the Pope will travel to Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. This city was destroyed by the Israeli troops before their withdrawal, following the 1973 war. John Paul II will pray there and appeal for peace.

On Tuesday the Pontiff will leave for Malta, the last stage of his pilgrimage in St. Paul´s footsteps.

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