DAMASCUS -- Pope John Paul II traveled to the battle-scarred GolanHeights on Monday (May 7) to pray for peace in the Middle East from achurch left half ruined after Israeli forces withdrew from the town ofKuneitra a quarter century ago.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,"the pope said, quoting from the Gospel of Matthew. "From this place sodisfigured by war, I wish to raise my heart and voice in prayer forpeace in the Holy Land and in the world."
The pope spoke in little more than a mumble as in kneeled inside thegutted Greek Melkite Cathedral of the Dormition of the Madonna, hiswords slurred by a neurological disease. But the symbolic significanceof his appeal -- coming from a ghost town in territory contested in twowars -- carried dramatic resonance.
Syria and Israel fought over the Golan Heights, a strategic highplain overlooking Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, in the Six-Day Warof 1967 and again in the October War of 1973. Syria has demanded returnof the territory as the first condition for any peace settlement withIsrael.
Syrian authorities said they have left Kuneitra deserted and inruins, watched over by a United Nations peacekeeping contingent, as a"symbol of resistance and struggle."
After Israeli forces pulled out of Kuneitra in June 1974, Syriacharged that Israeli had systematically dynamited houses and a hospital,sawed down electricity and power poles and looted and sacked mosques,churches and a cemetery. Israel contended the town suffered the damagein warfare.
John Paul, making a pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta in "thefootsteps of St. Paul," drove to the town, 45 miles southwest ofDamascus, for a visit that was the political high point of his tripalthough it lasted only 45 minutes.
The pope, who will turn 81 on May 18, looked tired, and it appearedto cost him an effort to walk and to talk. He read the first and lasttwo stanzas of his prayer in English and listened to the middle sectionsread for him in Arabic.
"God of infinite mercy and goodness, with grateful hearts we pray toyou today in this land where St. Paul once walked," John Paul said. "Mayyour voice resound in the hearts of all men and women, as you call themto follow the path of reconciliation and peace, and to be merciful asyou are merciful."
The pope said he prayed that the Lord might help the peoples of theMiddle East "break down the walls of hostility and division and to buildtogether a world of justice and solidarity."
In the words read in Arabic, John Paul prayed that the young mightbecome "men and women of peace," that civil leaders might "strive tosatisfy their peoples' rightful aspirations" and "work generously forthe common good," respecting the "inalienable dignity" and "fundamentalrights" of all.
"May all believers find the courage to forgive one another so thatthe wounds of the past may be healed and not be a pretext for furthersuffering in the present," the pope said. "May this happen above all inthe Holy Land."
The pope also sprinkled water on an olive sapling, which will beplanted in a Friendship Garden near Kuneitra as a symbol of hopes forpeace.
John Paul ended by voicing his appreciation to the internationalpeacekeeping force. Austrian blue berets have been stationed in Kuneitrasince the Israeli withdrawal.
The town, which was settled as part of the Amorite state establishedin 2250 B.C., came under the rule of the Aramaeans, Assyrians,Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks and, in 106 A.D., was incorporated into theArab state established during the Roman period.
It also had a religious significance for the pope. Its name isArabic for bridge because of its location on the caravan road leadingfrom Jerusalem to Damascus, which scholars believe St. Paul was takingwhen he was struck down and converted to Christianity.
On his way to the Golan Heights, the pope made brief stops at twochurches dedicated to the apostle.
The ancient Greek Catholic Church of St. Paul on the Wall ofDamascus was built on the site of Paul's escape from detention in abasket lowered from the wall, as recorded in the biblical book of Acts.
The Church of the Memorial of St. Paul was built in 1967, the giftof Pope Paul VI to commemorate his historic first meeting in Jerusalemin 1964 with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras.
John Paul was scheduled to meet with young people belonging to allsix Catholic rites present in Syria Monday night. On Tuesday he willleave for Valletta to beatify two priests and a nun on the last stop ofhis 5-1/2-day pilgrimage.