TOPICS > Nation

Background: The Pope’s Journey

May 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: After several history-making and sometimes controversial days in Greece and Syria, Pope John Paul II arrived this morning in the small Mediterranean nation of Malta. It’s the last stop on his six-day pilgrimage tracing the biblical footsteps of the Apostle Paul. The pope, who turns 81 later this month, began his tour Friday in Greece, where about 95 percent of the population is Orthodox. He’s the first Roman Catholic leader to visit the country since Christianity split into two estranged branches — Orthodox and Catholic — just under a thousand years ago.

After that break, Catholic crusaders sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire. The pope offered a sweeping statement of regret for sins of action or omission by Catholics against the Orthodox. But some were not so quick to forgive. Hundreds of conservative Greek Orthodox took to the streets to protest the pope’s visit. During his visit to Syria, the first by any pope to this mostly Muslim nation, the Holy See called on Christians, Muslims and Jews to respect one another.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: We all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude and understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three religions.

RAY SUAREZ: Syria’s President, Bashar Assad, called on the pope to take the Arab side in their dispute with Israel, referring to what he described as Jewish persecution of Jesus Christ in a hard line address that reflected deep rooted hatreds in the region.

PRESIDENT BASHAR ASSAD: (speaking through interpreter) So we see our brothers in Palestine being killed and tortured. We think that justice is being violated; lands are being occupied in Lebanon, the Golan and Palestine.

RAY SUAREZ: The Vatican did not directly respond to Assad’s comments. But officials in the United States and Israel called Assad racist and anti-Semitic. Sunday marked another papal first when Pope John Paul visited a mosque in the walled city of Damascus. He removed his shoes and donned white slippers out of respect for Muslim custom and entered the Umayyad Mosque, accompanied by Syria’s top Muslim cleric.

Yesterday the pope traveled to one of the most bitterly contested areas in the Middle East, the Golan Heights. He prayed for peace between Arabs and Jews from a crumbling church in Quneitra, a city Syrians say Israeli forces sacked in 1974. Thousands of Syrians were bussed in to greet the pontiff outside the church where he watered and blessed a small olive tree to be planted as a symbol of peace. After presiding over beatifications tomorrow in Malta, the pope heads home to the Vatican.