POPE IN SYRIA to retrace St. Paul's journeys, navigate Mideast politics

Saturday, May 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ After working to defuse Orthodox anger in Greece, Pope John Paul II arrived in the Mideast on Saturday with a plea for Arabs and Israelis to make peace. But references by his host, hard-line Syrian President Bashar Assad, to Jewish persecution of Jesus reflected persisting hatreds that will be hard to overcome.

Cheers erupted as the white-robed, 80-year-old pope appeared at the door of his plane and slowly made his way down the red-carpeted stairs to the tarmac where Assad waited to shake his hand. John Paul blessed a mound of Syrian soil presented by two attendants in a wooden box decorated with the country's red, white, black and green flag.

The pope is on the second leg of a six-day pilgrimage retracing the biblical travels of St. Paul the Apostle; his itinerary in Syria will include the first visit to a mosque by any pontiff.

``You, Mr. President, have wisely confirmed that a just and global peace is in the best interests of Syria,'' the pope said at an airport ceremony. ``I'm confident that under your guidance Syria will spare no effort to work for greater harmony and cooperation among the peoples of the region.''

Assad sharply criticized Israeli policies, comparing them to Jewish attacks on early Christians.

``They tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad.''

``We say we adhere to a just and comprehensive peace that returns the land to its original owners, and the return of refugees and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,'' said Assad, 36, who has been in power since the death of his father last June.

Though the welcome was friendly, with hundreds of children chanting greetings at the airport, the first-ever papal visit to Syria did not generate the kind of excitement it might in a country with a Catholic majority.

Only a few Vatican flags fluttered in the streets of this capital of 5 million.

But in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma, in the eastern part of the walled old city, the narrow streets and alleyways were bedecked with yellow-and-white flags and pictures of John Paul.

As in Greece, the pope was to reach out to non-Catholics during his four-day stay in mainly Muslim and officially secular Syria.

His schedule included purely religious events, such as an address Saturday at an ecumenical gathering. Other events, though, had a political element.

On Monday, the pope is to make a 40-mile road journey to Quneitra on the Golan Heights to say a prayer for peace at a battered Greek Orthodox church. St. Paul is believed to have traveled through Quneitra on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus.

The Syrians say the church, like the rest of the town, was sacked by departing Israeli forces in 1974. They refuse to rebuild Quneitra so it can serve as a reminder of Israel's ``crimes.''

Israel, which says the town was destroyed in fighting, controls the remainder of the Golan, a strategic plateau in southwest Syria it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Peace negotiations that could put all of the Golan back in Syrian hands have stalled.

At the airport, the school children's banners included this plea: ``We want to live like other children in the world: far from Israeli occupation.''

The pope's comments in Syria, though, were unlikely to have the drama of a sweeping apology he offered in Greece for sins by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians.

In a final meeting Friday night, John Paul and Greek Orthodox bishops recited the Lord's Prayer, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. A joint prayer among Catholic and Orthodox Christians often is seen as taboo, he added.

Syrian Christians belong to at least a half dozen faiths, with the Greek Orthodox Church boasting close to 1 million followers, about half the 2 million Christians in this country of 17 million. Syria's Orthodox community has expressed no opposition to the papal visit, perhaps in part because the Christian community here is so small that followers of the various sects tend to stress unity.

Suleiman Kassab, an Orthodox Christian, hung cheap yellow ribbons outside his paint shop in Bab Touma. ``For me, he (the pope) represents all Christians, not just Catholics,'' Kassab said.

In contrast to tensions that characterized his stay in Greece, Syria has looked forward to the pope's visit, spending millions of dollars to give places and roads on his itinerary a face lift.

``Have a vision _ take the road to Damascus,'' read tourism ministry posters showing the pope. The signs were part of a campaign to use the papal visit to show the world that despite Mideast turmoil, Syria is a peaceful place to visit with a rich history.