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Pontiff reaches out to Muslims


DAMASCUS, Syria -- John Paul II became the first pope to enter a mosque yesterday, continuing a journey to overcome historic interfaith bitterness and expressing hope that Christian and Muslim communities will never again fight each other.

"For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and offer each other forgiveness," he told a group of Muslim clerics.

Pope John Paul's visit to the eighth-century Umayyad mosque, a masterpiece of Islamic faith and Byzantine architecture with Roman-era touches, highlighted a day that put Syria's varied Muslim and Christian religious traditions on vivid display.

Earlier, the pope celebrated an outdoor Mass for thousands of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, which blended East and West with classical European music, Arab chants, and recitations in Arabic, Latin and Aramaic.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cast a shadow on his pilgrimage of peace and reconciliation. Israeli troops entered the West Bank villages of Beit Jala and El Khader, outside Bethlehem to quell Palestinian gunfire, killing one Palestinian and wounding 20, including a 5-year-old boy, wire services reported.

Israel's defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said he has given the army blanket permission to enter Palestinian areas when commanders feel it necessary.

Syrians continued to focus attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During live Syrian television coverage of the papal visit, a bulletin announced that Israeli forces had killed a Palestinian and wounded others in an assault on Beit Jala, a Christian village.

In a speech welcoming the pope, Syria's top Muslim cleric, Mufti Ahmed Kiftaro, said: "There are holy lands just a few miles away that are occupied. Let's put our hands together to support the victims of injustice.

"Regretfully, the whole world sees what's going on, where houses are being demolished, hundreds of children killed, and mosques and churches are being violated. Where is the [United Nations] Security Council? Where is the U.S. government?"

Syria prides itself on coexistence among its numerous religious sects, and retains a tiny Jewish community. But on the pope's trip, Judaism has received scant mention, mostly by the pontiff.

At a ceremony on Saturday marking the pope's arrival, Syrian President Bashar el Assad excoriated Israel and blamed Jews for the suffering of Jesus. A Vatican spokesman, responding to Israeli condemnation of Bashar's speech, said the church's stand against anti-Semitism is well-known.

The pope, who visited Israel's Holocaust Memorial during a historic visit to the Holy Land last year, is focusing now on improving Vatican ties with the Arab world and with Muslims, while bolstering the shrinking Christian communities of the Middle East.

His mosque visit offered a symbolic way to push aside centuries of hostility dating from the Muslim-Christian bloodshed of the Crusades. The Umayyad mosque compound houses a shrine to Saladin, who drove the Christian warriors from the Middle East.

Cheers, whistles and cries of "Baba," Arabic for "pope," greeted the glass-enclosed, bulletproof Popemobile as it wound through Old Damascus to the mosque.

But a hush fell on the crowd of white-turbaned sheiks and local dignitaries as the pope entered the mosque gate, preceded by a cluster of pink- and black-robed Vatican priests.

For nearly an hour before, hundreds of Muslim preachers from across Syria had gathered on the mosque's raised platform and sat in quiet contemplation, facing the holy city of Mecca.

While some Muslims had seemed apprehensive about the papal visit, Sheik Mohamed Youssef Smadi, an imam at another Damascus mosque, said it was "a good idea for the peace between Christians and Muslims."

After a greeting from the mufti, the pope entered the vast Byzantine mosque, built by the Caliph al-Walid on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter and replacing a church dedicated to John the Baptist. He wore white slippers for the occasion. Muslim worshipers and visitors usually enter in stocking feet.

He shuffled slowly across red Oriental carpets, past mosaic-decorated walls and Corinthian columns from the original Roman temple, and paused before a marble shrine to John the Baptist. Standing there, touching the marble, he seemed to be saying a silent prayer. In deference to Muslim sensitivities, the Vatican had agreed that he wouldn't worship aloud.

Outside, the pope joined the mufti in speeches of reconciliation, ending his by praising "the one merciful God" and saying, "Amen."

"It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence," the pope said. "It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together, in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each others' religious beliefs."

The pope's morning Mass had been billed as an event that would draw 40,000, but numerous empty chairs were evident in the stadium. Nevertheless, the Mass had a youthful, festive atmosphere. Shouts of "We love you" echoed as the pope entered to the strains of the "Hallelujah Chorus."

Catholics of the Melkite, Armenian, Latin and Assyrian sects represent less than 30 percent of Syria's 2 million Christians, who are mostly Greek Orthodox but include Syrian Orthodox, Protestants and a few smaller sects.

Seated on a delicately carved throne inlaid with mother of pearl, the pope celebrated the many ways Christians worship in the "Churches of the East," which he said are "bridges between people of different persuasions."

He urged worshipers to work to build a society "where everyone's human dignity and fundamental rights are recognized. In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together."

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