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Pope pleads for Muslim, Christian forgiveness

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Pope John Paul II has become the first pontiff to enter a mosque during his groundbreaking pilgrimage to Syria.

He marked the historic event by issuing a plea for Christians and Muslims to forgive each other for the past.

Speaking inside the Great Omayyad mosque in Damascus, he also said religious conviction was never a justification for violence.

"For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness," he said in his address to Muslim leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Syria.

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CNN's Brent Sadler reports on John Paul II's visit to Syria (May 5)

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CNN's Jim Bittermann reports on the significance of the pope's visit to Greece (May 4)

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CNN's Rula Amin reports on the pope's trip to build relations between Christians and Muslims

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A pilgrimage for peace

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CNN's Brent Sadler: Syrian relations with Lebanon

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  IN-DEPTH
Mideast struggle for peace

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"Better mutual understanding will surely lead...to a new way of presenting our two religions, not in opposition as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family."

"Never more communities in conflict," he said in the mosque, which contains a memorial to St John the Baptist. Outside lies the tomb of Saladin, who drove out the Crusaders.

But despite the Pope's appeal, Syria and Israel attacked each other in statements surrounding the Pope's visit.

Israeli President Moshe Katzav called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an "anti-Semite and racist" for telling the Pope that Jews had betrayed Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad.

Assad, in a fiery speech when welcoming the Pope, had compared the suffering of Palestinians today with Jewish attacks on early Christians.

Outraged by Assad's comments, Katzav urged the Vatican to respond. Assad enraged Israelis last month by saying that Israeli society was "more racist than the Nazis."

The Pope did not respond to Assad's speech but his spokesman said the position of the Holy See against anti-semitism was well known and had been stated clearly in the past.

The Pope, respecting Muslim tradition, took off his shoes before stepping into the mosque to the cheers and claps of scores of people waiting outside.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope would "cherish" the visit as one of the highlights of his papacy.

The papal visit has revived a sense of unity and pride among Syria's 2.4 million Christians, who have retained their faith through centuries in a Muslim-dominated country of 17 million.

The call for mutual forgiveness was the continuation of a theme begun on Friday in Greece, where the Pontiff sought God's forgiveness for the wrongs committed by Catholics against Orthodox faithful in the past 1,000 years.

The Pope has also used his stop in Syria to make several calls for Middle East peace and a return to dialogue.

At a Sunday mass, he urged Christians, Muslims and Jews to take bold action to bring about peace in their region. Nearly 40,000 worshippers gathered for a Mass led by John Paul II in the Abbassiyeen stadium in Damascus.

"Peace be unto you all," said the 80-year-old Pontiff, who appeared tired, greeting the crowd in Arabic.

CNN's Brent Sadler said that with interfaith unity and increasing tension in the Middle East topping the agenda, John Paul II is tackling some of the most difficult diplomatic and theological problems of his papacy on the second leg of his pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul.

During the mass he offered a fervent call for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together to bring peace to the troubled region.

"In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together with confidence and boldness and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding," the Pontiff said in French.

The crowd, made up mostly of young people, roared and waved Syrian flags and yellow-and-white Vatican flags as the Pope was driven around the track in a "Popemobile."

They chanted "John Paul II we love you" as the Pope entered the stadium to the echoes of hymns and chants of "Alleluia."

John Paul's pilgrimage retraces the steps of St Paul, the Jew who converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus and later preached in Athens and Malta on his way to Rome.

Damascus, the world's oldest inhabited city, has given the Roman church six popes as well as saints and priests over the centuries.

The ancient Omayyad Mosque, which like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is one of the greatest treasures of Islamic art, is a unique site that was once a church and a mosque at the same time.



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RELATED SITES:
Greek Orthodox Church
Vatican
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