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Syrian leader greets pope with harsh line on Israel


DAMASCUS - Syria's president used a welcoming ceremony for Pope John Paul II yesterday to deliver one of his harshest spoken attacks against Israel, equating what he called the murder and torture of Palestinians with the persecution of Jesus Christ.

Arriving on a pilgrimage of peace and reconciliation, the pope found himself thrust into the region's explosive mix of religion and politics, which is aggravated daily by conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

President Bashar el Assad never mentioned the State of Israel or the Jewish people in his speech, but the target of his rage was unmistakable.

He recalled Christ's teaching of love, tolerance and equality, and the need to protect people from suffering "such as his," noting pointedly that the pope embodies the responsibility for upholding these principles.

Then he added: "Our brethren in Palestine are being murdered and tortured, justice is being violated and, as a result, territories in Lebanon, the Golan [Heights] and Palestine have been occupied by those who even killed the principle of equality when they claimed that God created a people distinguished above all other peoples.

"We notice them committing aggression against Muslim and Christian holy sites in Palestine," Assad went on. "They try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality [used in] betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Mohammed."

In closing, he told the pope: "We feel that in your prayers when you recall the agony of Jesus Christ you will remember the peoples of Lebanon, the Golan and Palestine who are tormented and suffer from suppression and persecution."

The frail pope, hunched in a chair, showed no apparent reaction to Assad's words, at the end of which he weakly joined in general applause, tapping the fingers of one hand into the palm of the other.

But his own prepared remarks stood in stark contrast to Assad's.

"I am confident that under your guidance, Syria will spare no effort to work for greater harmony and cooperation among the peoples of the region," he said.

"We all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions," he said, referring to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Syria contains a tiny Jewish community with ancient roots, shrunken in recent years by emigration.

A Vatican official, who declined to be identified, said the pope opposes Assad's strident views against Zionism, but backs the general Arab view that Israel is violating U.N. resolutions.

The Vatican absolved the Jews in 1965 from the "historical responsibility" for the death of Christ.

John Paul reiterated that it is time "to return to the principles of international legality," including the banning of acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, U.N. resolutions and the Geneva conventions.

The pope's visit is intended to improve ties between Christians and Muslims, who represent the great majority in Syria, and between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Assad and other members of Syria's ruling circle belong to the small Muslim Alawite sect.

Assad's speech underscored Syria's dual aims in welcoming John Paul on a four-day pilgrimage to this ancient capital. While showcasing its heritage as a "cradle of civilizations" and Christian and Muslim culture, Syria wants to use the media spotlight to broadcast its grievances against Israel.

Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights, the strategic Syrian plateau that it seized in the 1967 Six-Day war. Syrian anger deepened recently after Israel's airstrike against a Syrian radar site outside Beirut in Lebanon. Israel acted in response to the fatal ambush of an Israeli soldier on the Lebanon-Israel border by Hezbollah guerrillas, who are backed by Syria. Assad, who accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to provoke a war, has so far refrained from retaliating.

Assad, 35, who succeeded his late father as president less than a year ago, has delivered some of the Arab world's fiercest condemnations of Israel since the start of the Palestinian uprising in October. At an Arab summit in March, he called the Israeli public "more racist than the Nazis."

The political undertones of the rest of the pope's trip are likely to prove more trying.

Today, the pope is to tour the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the first visit by a pope to Islamic holy ground.

Tomorrow, he plans to deliver a prayer for peace in Quneitra, a city in the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 war and destroyed before it was returned in 1974, and which Syria has preserved as a museum of Israeli brutality. "It is the most fitting place to pray for peace," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman.

The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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