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Pope calls for healing amid ruin of Mideast


QUNEITRA, Syria - Speaking to a region beset by bitter and bloody memories, Pope John Paul II called on all sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict yesterday to avoid using "the wounds of the past" as an excuse for the present.

"Merciful Father, 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. May this happen above all in the Holy Land."

The pope issued his message while kneeling in prayer in a wrecked church surrounded by ruins left by Israeli troops in this former provincial capital nearly three decades ago.

Later, as if to underscore his point, the pontiff issued a statement deploring the death of a Palestinian infant during fighting yesterday between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza.

Though his prayer called for the overcoming of grievances, the place the pope chose as a backdrop stands as a symbol of the region's refusal to forgive and forget.

Before Israeli troops pulled out of Quneitra after the 1973 Middle East war, they dynamited and bulldozed buildings, water tanks and communications lines, leaving the once-prosperous town of 50,000 a scarred landscape of broken concrete with few buildings standing.

Syria has chosen to keep it that way as a monument to what it views as Israel's aggression and destructiveness, even though Syria invaded Israel across this territory in 1973. Here, Syrians say, Israelis not only drove out residents and destroyed their homes, but also desecrated religious sites and robbed graves of jewelry.

The pope's visit was a major propaganda coup amid Syria's continuing state of war with Israel.

The Syrian government distributed an account of the destruction given by the priest of the Greek Orthodox Lady Mary Church, where the pope prayed and later watered a young olive tree as a symbol of his hope for peace.

George Mohassal described returning to Quneitra after the war and finding his church partly destroyed and stripped bare.

"The cross, the bell, the valuable icons, the chandeliers, the windows were either broken or looted, even the marble was stripped," he wrote. In the Christian cemetery, tombs had been opened with crowbars, machine guns and hand grenades, he said.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denounced the Syrian claim as "cheap propaganda."

"Israel never had an intention or a command to destroy a church," he said. "If a church is dear to them, why didn't they repair it?"

If the pope was a witting participant in Syria's media exercise, it may have been a measure of his and the Vatican's frustration with the fighting in the Middle East, despite his pleas through the years for an end to bloodshed. The fighting and destruction in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and the other Palestinian villages that surround the birthplace of Christ is a particular source of anguish.

The pope visited Jerusalem last year to foster reconciliation between the Vatican and Israel, and between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

But the Vatican supports the Palestinians and the Syrians in their demand for an end to Israeli occupation of their territory and says Israel is in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Quneitra lies below the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967 and continues to occupy. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Syria regained part of the territory, including Quneitra.

Syria refuses to make peace with Israel until it regains all of the land it held before the Six-Day War. Talks brokered by President Bill Clinton last year collapsed when Israel's offer fell short of a full return of the territory.

Thousands of Syrians, many of them Golan refugees, lined Quneitra's desolate, overgrown roadsides for the pope's arrival, many cheering and waving Syrian and Vatican flags. Schoolchildren paraded, and little girls in spotless white frocks and bonnets were presented to the pope for blessings.

The festive atmosphere clashed starkly with the devastated landscape but thrilled those who saw in the pope's visit a hope that their lost villages might be returned.

"He's a great man, that he comes to see the country and villages to help us get peace," said Kawthar Ruhbah, 34, a middle school teacher in Damascus who was 2 months old when her family fled its village in the Golan Heights.

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