Pope Prays for Peace in Golan Ghost Town

«Salam! Salam! Salam!» Is His Cry at Quneitra

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QUNEITRA, Syria, MAY 7, 2001 (Zenit.org).- From the ruins of the ghost city of Quneitra, symbol of Mideast warfare, a kneeling John Paul II prayed «for peace in the Holy Land and the world.»

The Pope left Damascus this morning, to journey on the road that likely took St. Paul to Quneitra, at the Golan Heights. The city was destroyed and occupied by Israeli troops following the Six Day War of 1967. Now, only tourists, and U.N. forces responsible for ensuring demilitarization, are seen on the city´s streets.

In this setting of devastation, the Pope made his way to the virtually destroyed Greek-Orthodox Church. Once inside, he was only able to walk a few meters, given the destruction.

After kneeling in silence on a wooden prie-dieu, John Paul II exclaimed: «From this place, so disfigured by war, I wish to raise my heart and voice in prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the world. Genuine peace is a gift from God. Our openness to that gift requires a conversion of heart and a conscience obedient to his law.»

Syria has used this visit to express its version of the conflict with Israel, a country with which it is, theoretically, in a state of war. Syria and Israel suspended their peace talks in January 1999, after reaching irreconcilable postures on the status of the Golan Heights. From Syria´s point of view, the occupation of the Golan Heights justifies its own control of Lebanon.

The Pontiff appealed to the conscience of all peoples bloodied by war. Addressing the Lord, he exclaimed: «We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East. Help them to break down the walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity.»

In particular, John Paul II prayed for the region´s leaders. «Inspire them to work generously for the common good, to respect the inalienable dignity of every person and [his] fundamental rights,» he said.

The Pontiff ended his prayer, crying out: «Salam! Salam! Salam!» — peace, in Arabic.

A 4-month-old girl died a short time before in a bomb attack by the Israeli army against the town of Jan Yunes, in the southern Gaza strip. The attack was in retaliation for aggression against the Jewish settlements in the region.

The Holy Father said: «Upon hearing the sad news of conflicts, and also the deaths that have visited Gaza today, my prayer becomes more intense.»

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the Pope´s concern «must not be confused with arbitrary attempts to politicize a visit, which only has the character of a pilgrimage.»

After praying for peace, John Paul II planted an olive tree, which will be placed in the Friendship Garden, a few kilometers from Quneitra.

Before leaving this ghost city, which before the war had about 50,000 residents, John Paul II publicly thanked the U.N. force, composed of Austrian soldiers.

«Your presence is a sign of the international community´s determination to be of assistance in bringing closer the day of harmony between the peoples, the cultures and religions of the area,» he said. «May Almighty God protect you and sustain your efforts!»

Over the three days he has been in Syria, John Paul II has repeatedly called for Mideast peace.

«In this holy land,» the Pope concluded, «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 peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding.»

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