POPE arrives in Malta on last leg of pilgrimage


Tuesday, May 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ After momentous gestures for reconciliation with other faiths, Pope John Paul II arrived at a bastion of his own church Tuesday to end a journey that has challenged his stamina and displayed his determination to shape history.

The pontiff's plane touched down in Malta for a two-day visit that promises the frail, 80-year-old pope a chance to catch his breath after two highly charged backdrops: festering Middle East conflicts and the 1,000-year estrangement between the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox churches.

In a brief statement at the Damascus airport before he left Syria for Malta on Tuesday, the Roman Catholic pontiff made a fresh appeal for a ``just peace'' in the Middle East and warned that confrontation ``will always fail.''

He spoke of the Syrian people's suffering from their country's conflict with Israel and said Mideast peace can only come if ``fundamental issues of truth and justice, of rights and responsibilities'' are resolved.

John Paul's visit to Malta wraps up a pilgrimage that included an unprecedented visit to a mosque in Syria and a statement of regret in Greece for wrongs committed by the Roman Catholic church against Orthodox Christians.

Following in the biblical footsteps of the Apostle Paul, the pope faced opposition in Greece _ where many Orthodox prelates opposed his visit _ and calls in Syria for him to throw his weight behind Arabs against Israel.

John Paul appeased both with broad gestures of peace.

In Greece, he astonished his hosts with his unexpected apology for wrongs against Orthodox Christians and urged serious dialogue on bridging nearly 1,000 years of mistrust and hostility since the two branches of Christianity split.

In Syria, he became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to set foot inside a Muslim place of worship, visiting the Omayyad Mosque on Sunday in a step certain to give momentum to his efforts to encourage more dialogue between Islam and Christianity.

In the rubble of a Golan Heights city that is a reminder of Syria's war with Israel, the pope prayed Monday for an end to the suffering in the Middle East, urging believers of all faiths to forgive one another in the name of peace.

As expected, the Polish-born pope did not express regret in Syria for 200 years of wars waged by European Crusaders against Muslims of the Middle East beginning in the 11th century. But his mosque visit and the praise he lavished on Islam's contribution to world culture appeared to satisfy his hosts in Damascus.

He also reached out to the non-Catholic churches of Syria, a country that is rich with early Christian history, commending their leaders for their good relations with its Catholic churches. Significantly, his first meeting with Syrian church leaders in Damascus took place in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

Syria sought to make political capital of John Paul's visit, airing bitterness over the 33-year occupation of its territory by Israel, which seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war and still holds most of the strategic plateau.

President Bashar Assad set the tone in a blunt welcoming speech Saturday, urging the Vatican to side with Arabs in their dispute with Israel and referring to what he described as Jewish persecution of Jesus Christ.

Thousands of Syrians were bused in to greet the pope Monday in Quneitra _ which the government says Israeli forces sacked before handing it back to Syria in 1974. Many carried banners pleading for justice and denouncing Israel.

But John Paul steered clear of the controversy.

``I appeal once more to all the peoples involved, and to their political leaders, to recognize that confrontation has failed and will always fail,'' he said at the airport Tuesday.

``Only a just peace can bring the conditions needed for the economic, cultural and social development to which the people of the region have a right,'' he said.

Malta may be less of a challenge for the pope, who is returning for the first time in 11 years. Nearly 98 percent of the 392,000 people in the tiny Mediterranean island nation south of Sicily are baptized Roman Catholic.

John Paul will fulfill a dream for many Maltese: the beatification of a beloved local priest, Rev. George Preca, who founded a religious society that reached out to the common workers and their families.

The remains of Preca, who died in 1962, have been moved to a raised tomb at the society's main church, and the pope plans to view an effigy of the body in a glass enclosure. Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood.

The pope's six-day itinerary was built around the journeys of the Apostle Paul, who the Bible says spent three months preaching in Malta after being shipwrecked in the year 60 while being taken to Rome for trial.