The Vatican on Thursday released the schedule of the pope's May 4-9 trip to Greece, Syria and Malta, organized by the Vatican as a pilgrimage to sites associated with the life of the Apostle Paul.
But it also includes meetings with Orthodox Christian and Muslim leaders, part of John Paul's efforts for better relations with non-Catholics, and a 45-minute stop in Quneitra, a ghost town on the Golan Heights. There he will say a prayer at a Greek Orthodox church.
The Israelis captured Quneitra in the 1967 Middle East war and then in 1974 bulldozed hundreds of houses before returning the deserted town to Syrian control. Syrians often bring foreign visitors to Quneitra for a view of the rubble, preserved as a symbol of Israel's occupation of the Golan, whose control is one of the biggest obstacles to a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.
The May 5-7 stop in Syria will include a meeting with President Bashar Assad and a stop at a Damascus mosque, a first for a pope.
The May trip will begin in Athens. Historic hostility toward the Vatican from the church in Greece had put that stop in doubt.
The Vatican says the trip is in line with pilgrimages last year to Biblical sites in Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
John Paul has decided to push ahead with his travels, despite difficulties in moving and speaking associated with symptoms of Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disease.
John Paul hopes the visit to Greece and another to Ukraine in June will help heal the 1,000-year-old estrangement between Roman Catholics and Orthodox. Still, a number of Orthodox clerics and nuns in Greece have protested the decision by church leaders to drop their objections to the visit.
In Athens, the pope will meet with Greek church leader Archbishop Christodoulos, who has appealed for calm during the two-day visit.
John Paul visited Malta, a predominantly Roman Catholic island in the Mediterranean, in 1990. At that time he prayed at St. Paul's Grotto, where Maltese say the apostle was shipwrecked in the year 60.