John Paul becomes first pope to visit a mosque

 

Pope John Paul became the first pope to visit a mosque yesterday evening. He entered the Great Omayyad mosque in Damascus on the second day of his visit to Syria. Following a minute's silent meditation at the tomb of Saint John the Baptist there, he said Muslims and Christians should "offer each other forgiveness" for all the times they "have offended one another".

He spent 95 minutes at the mosque, which was built in AD 705 on the site of a Christian church. As the ornate doors closed behind him, he went to a side room where he removed his shoes, as is the Muslim practice. Then, wearing white slippers and leaning on a cane, he walked unaided to the prayer hall where the tomb of John the Baptist, who is venerated by both Muslims and Christians, is located. Afterwards the visiting group heard a sung recital from the Koran, before an address by Syria's Religious Affairs Minister, Mr Mohammad Zyada.

Taking up the recurring anti-Israeli theme of this visit by Syrian officials, he said "we have to be aware of what is being plotted against us by the enemies of God, Zionist hatred against Islam and Christianity."

Syria's Muslim mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, said to the Pope: "Holy Father, you cannot imagine how happy I am today." He recalled his two visits to the Vatican but said he "could not have imagined I would find you here in this mosque."

It was "an occasion that rises above history and which will bear much fruit," he said, adding that he spoke "in the name of all the other sheikhs," describing the Omayyad mosque as "the mother of all mosques".

At the same time he said he would like it to be "a moment of great hope for the Arabs who are suffering," referring to the Palestinian territories, southern Lebanon, and the Arabs of Jerusalem.

In his address Pope John Paul said that it was his "ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict". A planned joint Muslim-Christian prayer at the mosque was cancelled, apparently because of fears of wounding Muslim sensitivities.

Earlier, at a four-hour Mass in a Damascus stadium attended by members of all denominations among Syria's 2.4 million Christians, (of a total 17 million Syrians) the Pope called for understanding, respect and peace among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Middle East.

However on Saturday, on his arrival in Damascus, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said the Israelis had "tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad."

Yesterday Israel's President Moshe Katzav called Mr al-Assad an "anti-Semite and racist" and urged the Vatican to respond.

Last month the Syrian President had said Israeli society was "more racist than the Nazis".

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, said yesterday that Israelis had "hoped that after the Holocaust such statements would be a thing of the past and every leader of the enlightened world should condemn them." He called on Catholic leaders to reject such statements "with revulsion".

The Pope did not comment on the Syrian President's speech, but his spokesman, Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said yesterday that the position of the Holy See against anti-Semitism had been stated clearly in the past.

"The Pope will absolutely not intervene. We are guests of this President," he said.

Meanwhile the head of Russia's Orthodox Church has greeted with scepticism Pope John Paul's plea for forgiveness for Catholics who had sinned against Orthodox believers.

Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, was speaking at the beginning of a nine-day visit to Russia by the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, who met the Pope in Athens last Friday.

"For a start, as far as I know, it essentially concerns the Crusades, and we will have to see how this pardon will translate into acts," said Patriarch Alexei.

Archbishop Christodoulos is scheduled to brief both the Patriarch and the Russian President, Mr Vladimir Putin, on the impact of the Pope's visit on relations between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.

The Pope is due to visit the former Soviet state of Ukraine in June, a visit which is opposed by the Orthodox church there. As in Greece, it accuses the Catholic Church of seeking converts among its members. Ukrainian Catholics allege they were betrayed to the Communists by the Orthodox Church, who then took possession of their church buildings which, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, are being aggressively sought back.