VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope John Paul II will set out just two weeks before his 81st birthday on a history-making visit to Athens, Greece, and Damascus, Syria, that could turn out to be one of the most difficult trips of his long pontificate.

When he arrives in Athens Friday (May 4), John Paul will become the first Roman Catholic pontiff ever to set foot on Greek soil. In Damascus, he will break new ground in Catholic-Muslim relations Sunday by becoming the first pope to enter a mosque.

John Paul also will drive to the contested Golan Heights on Monday to make a dramatic appeal for an end to the renewed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and plant a tree to symbolize the quest for peace.

But in both Greece and Syria, the increasingly frail pontiff, who will turn 81 on May 18, can expect a cool reception. He will face open hostility from militants within the Greek Orthodox Church and reserve on the part of Syria's Muslim leaders.

The 51/2-day trip, which also will include a stop on the Mediterranean island of Malta, will be the 93rd that John Paul has made outside Italy in the 221/2 years of his pontificate.

Despite his advancing age and the ravages of a neurological disease that makes it difficult for him to move and to speak clearly, the pope will follow this pilgrimage "in the footsteps of the Apostle St. Paul" with a visit to Ukraine in June over strong Russian Orthodox opposition.

The trip to Athens, Damascus and the Maltese capital of Valletta is an extension of the Holy Year pilgrimages John Paul made to biblical sites in Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Autonomous Palestinian Territories last March.

On this trip, the pope will make a pilgrimage to the hill of the Aeropagus in Athens where St. Paul first preached to the Gentiles. He and Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, will read together from the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament book containing Paul's sermon at the Aeropagus.

In Damascus, John Paul will visit the Church of St. Paul on the Wall in the Bab Kissam gate of the old city walls and a memorial marking the saint's conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus.

But religious and political controversy erupted even before his departure, forcing the Vatican to cancel the participation of two prelates who would normally have joined the papal party.

Cardinal Ignatius Moussa I Daoud, former patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians named recently by the pope as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Oriental Churches, was withdrawn because of Greek Orthodox objections that he represented "uniate" churches, which had left an "open wound" in the Orthodox Church by restoring their allegiance to the pope.

It was announced in Beirut on Wednesday (May 2) that Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, would not be able to join the pope in Damascus because of "political tensions." Sfeir, who is based in Lebanon, is a leader of protests over the continued presence in Lebanon of 35,000 Syrian soldiers.

In both Athens and Damascus, religious leaders rejected proposals for joint prayers with the pope.

"No praying together and no negotiating the truth of our faith will take place," Christodoulos declared in a recent sermon apparently aimed at calming religious fanaticism.

Although Christodoulos is credited with convincing the ruling Greek Orthodox Synod to allow a papal visit, he also refused to greet the pope on his arrival at Spata International Airport.

Christodoulos is expected to use their private meeting to demand an apology for a list of grievances accumulated since the Great Schism that divided Catholics and Orthodox in 1054. High among the grievances is the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.

The Greek Orthodox leader said in an interview with Italian television Sunday (April 29) that he hoped the visit would prove positive by overcoming "some obstacles."

"Certainly," he said, "we all expect the words of a Christian bishop from the mouth of the Holy Father, words of self-criticism and words of love, above all for the Greek Orthodox, to open a new road for better relations among our two churches."

In Syria, a country noted for religious tolerance, Muslim leaders at first agreed a proposal that John Paul and the grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Kifratro, pray together in the courtyard of the Omayyaddi mosque. They changed their mind, however, after angry protests from other Muslim countries, particularly the Persian Gulf states.

Instead, the pope and the mufti will enter the mosque and stand in silence before the mausoleum believed to contain the head of John the Baptist. Then each will deliver a speech outside the mosque.

Muslims respect both John the Baptist and Jesus as prophets, but do not accept Jesus' resurrection.

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