Beliefnet
DAMASCUS, Syria, May 6 (AP) - John Paul II became the first pope to enter a mosque Sunday, calling for brotherhood between Christians and Muslims and stepping across a sensitive line in his campaign for better relations among different faiths.

Vatican and Syrian flags decorated the Omayyad Mosque in the old walled city at the heart of modern Damascus as the 80-year-old pontiff slipped off his shoes as tradition requires and entered the mosque.

Leaning on a cane, he stumbled slightly at the threshold and while crossing the carpeted floor of the vast, white-columned hall glittering with chandeliers. He walked with Syria's top Muslim cleric, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, who is in his late 80s and also walked with a cane.

The visit to the mosque had been controversial from the start. It stands on land a church occupied 12 centuries ago. Some Syrians had questioned whether the pope was trying to claim the site back for Christianity, evoking centuries-old conflict between Muslims and Europeans.

Just outside the mosque compound is the tomb of Salaheddin al-Ayoubi, or Saladin, who led the Muslim armies that wrested Jerusalem from Christian Crusaders in the 12th century.

The pope's main interest was in a shrine inside the mosque where tradition holds that the head of John the Baptist is believed buried. Christian pilgrims in Damascus often pay their respects at the white marble shrine resembling a large coffin and surrounded by an iron cage.

But the visit was also a natural step in John Paul's longtime campaign to heal the wounds separating Christians, Muslims and Jews. In 1986, he became the first pope to visit a Jewish synagogue.

After leaving the mosque, the pontiff urged Muslims and Christians to ``turn to one another with feelings of brotherhood and friendship, so that the Almighty may bless us with the peace which heaven alone can give.''

A planned joint Muslim-Christian prayer at the mosque was canceled, apparently because of fears of wounding Muslim sensitivities. But Kuftaro welcomed the visit, telling John Paul in private it was ``a great day for Muslims around the world,'' according to papal aides.

But Kuftaro also took up a theme that has become familiar since the pope arrived Friday: Syrian calls for Christians to line up with Muslims against ``Zionist Jews.''

In comments after the mosque tour, the mufti accused Israel of attacking Palestinians and destroying their homes and urged the West and the Vatican to take ``a stand that is more than just decisions, prayers and wishes ... in order to stop this brutal massacre against the children of Christ and Muhammad.''

Banners outside the mosque also referred to the Arab-Israeli conflict: ``There will be no peace without a peace based on justice.''

Residents said they hoped for a better atmosphere to come from the pope's visit.

``I hope the pope's visit to the mosque will reflect a true image of Syria, which some accuse of being a nation that sponsors terrorists,'' said Maamoun Nahlawi, a 40-year-old Muslim who runs a store that sells religious items a stone's throw from the mosque.

John Paul has visited a number of countries with Muslim majorities, starting with Morocco in 1985. But he had never before entered a mosque, and no pope before him had, either.

``It is the first time ever in 2,000 years of Christianity that a pope is visiting a mosque,'' said John Paul's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

In 1986, John Paul made the first ever papal visit to a synagogue, going to Rome's monumental main synagogue along the Tiber River and alongside the former ghetto where some of his predecessors had confined the city's Jews.

He has also worked for better relations among Christian denominations. Three days ago in Athens, he issued a surprisingly sweeping apology for wrongs committed by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians.

The pope - who is retracing the biblical travels of St. Paul the Apostle on a six-day pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta - began the day with an open-air Mass for some 35,000 people in the Syrian capital's Abbasid Stadium.

``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 legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding,'' the pope told the stadium crowd, speaking in French.

A day earlier, his call for concord among people of different faiths was met by hard-line rhetoric from Syrian President Bashar Assad, who urged John Paul to side with Arabs in their dispute with Israel.

Assad referred to what he described as Jewish persecution of Jesus Christ in an address that reflected persistent hatreds in the region.

In Israel, the response to Assad was stern.

``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.''

Navarro-Valls told reporters Sunday that ``the pope will absolutely not intervene. We are guests of this president and he has expressed his opinion.'' He added that the church and John Paul both have spoken out against anti-Semitism ``on numerous occasions.''

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