DAMASCUS -- Pope John Paul II traveled to the battle-scarred Golan Heights on Monday (May 7) to pray for peace in the Middle East from a church left half ruined after Israeli forces withdrew from the town of Kuneitra 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 so disfigured by war, I wish to raise my heart and voice in prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the world."
The pope spoke in little more than a mumble as in kneeled inside the gutted Greek Melkite Cathedral of the Dormition of the Madonna, his words slurred by a neurological disease. But the symbolic significance of his appeal -- coming from a ghost town in territory contested in two wars -- carried dramatic resonance.
Syria and Israel fought over the Golan Heights, a strategic high plain overlooking Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, in the Six-Day War of 1967 and again in the October War of 1973. Syria has demanded return of the territory as the first condition for any peace settlement with Israel.
Syrian authorities said they have left Kuneitra deserted and in ruins, 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, Syria charged 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 damage in warfare.
John Paul, making a pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta in "the footsteps of St. Paul," drove to the town, 45 miles southwest of Damascus, for a visit that was the political high point of his trip although it lasted only 45 minutes.
The pope, who will turn 81 on May 18, looked tired, and it appeared to cost him an effort to walk and to talk. He read the first and last two stanzas of his prayer in English and listened to the middle sections read for him in Arabic.
"God of infinite mercy and goodness, with grateful hearts we pray to you today in this land where St. Paul once walked," John Paul said. "May your voice resound in the hearts of all men and women, as you call them to follow the path of reconciliation and peace, and to be merciful as you are merciful."
The pope said he prayed that the Lord might help the peoples of the Middle East "break down the walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity."
In the words read in Arabic, John Paul prayed that the young might become "men and women of peace," that civil leaders might "strive to satisfy their peoples' rightful aspirations" and "work generously for the common good," respecting the "inalienable dignity" and "fundamental rights" of all.
"May all believers find the courage to forgive one another so that the wounds of the past may be healed and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present," the pope said. "May this happen above all in the Holy Land."
The pope also sprinkled water on an olive sapling, which will be planted in a Friendship Garden near Kuneitra as a symbol of hopes for peace.
John Paul ended by voicing his appreciation to the international peacekeeping force. Austrian blue berets have been stationed in Kuneitra since the Israeli withdrawal.
The town, which was settled as part of the Amorite state established in 2250 B.C., came under the rule of the Aramaeans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks and, in 106 A.D., was incorporated into the Arab state established during the Roman period.
It also had a religious significance for the pope. Its name is Arabic for bridge because of its location on the caravan road leading from Jerusalem to Damascus, which scholars believe St. Paul was taking when he was struck down and converted to Christianity.
On his way to the Golan Heights, the pope made brief stops at two churches dedicated to the apostle.
The ancient Greek Catholic Church of St. Paul on the Wall of Damascus was built on the site of Paul's escape from detention in a basket 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 gift of Pope Paul VI to commemorate his historic first meeting in Jerusalem in 1964 with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras.
John Paul was scheduled to meet with young people belonging to all six Catholic rites present in Syria Monday night. On Tuesday he will leave for Valletta to beatify two priests and a nun on the last stop of his 5-1/2-day pilgrimage.