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Pope appeals for Mideast peace
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Pope John Paul II has begun a groundbreaking visit to Syria with an appeal for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
"As the word peace echoes in our hearts, how can we not think of the tensions and conflicts which have long troubled the region of the Middle East?" asked the frail-looking Pontiff at a welcoming ceremony attended by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"It is time to return to the principles of international legality: The banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations organisation and the Geneva conventions," the pope said.
"My pilgrimage is also an ardent prayer of hope. Hope that among the peoples of the region fear will turn to trust and contempt to mutual esteem, that force will give way to dialogue and that a genuine desire to serve the common good will prevail."
Assad spoke out against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, comparing them with 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 Mohammed," the president said in his address, with the event carried on live on Syrian television.
"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."
John Paul II, the first Pontiff to visit the mainly Muslim country, received an enthusiastic welcome on Saturday, with several hundred school children -- Muslim and Christian -- wearing caps in the Vatican's yellow-and-white colours and waving flags.
CNN's Brent Sadler said the president's presence, with a 21-gun salute in the background, showed the importance that was being attached to the visit, which is set against a background of increased tension in the region.
On the second leg of his tour in the footsteps of Saint Paul, John Paul II's itinerary includes a trip to Quneitra on the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and returned under a United States-negotiated agreement in 1974.
He is also set to become the first Catholic leader to enter a mosque when he visits the Omayyad Mosque -- the spot claimed to hold John the Baptist's head.
The Pontiff is also to celebrate Mass at the Abbasid Stadium east of the Syrian capital, which tens of thousands of people are expected to attend.
Millions has been spent to ensure the visit's success with roads and footpaths paved, and litter and graffiti removed from places the pope plans to visit.
Syria is where Saint Paul converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus and today there are about two million Christians in the nation of 17 million.
In Greece, on the first stop of his tour, John Paul II sought to heal an ancient rift with a joint statement with Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos, saying: "We condemn all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism in the name of religion."
This followed an earlier appeal for God to forgive sins of "actions and omission" by Catholics against Orthodox believers during the 1,000 year split between the two traditions.
The tour will conclude with a visit to Catholic Malta.
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