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Pope urges peace in Golan Heights

QUNEITRA, Syria -- Pope John Paul II has again called for peace and forgiveness in the rubble of a town Syrians say was destroyed by Israel.

The pope's visit to Quneitra, a once-thriving town on the much-disputed Golan Heights, comes a day after he became the first Roman Catholic leader to enter a mosque and pray in a Muslim place of worship.

Applause broke out on Monday as John Paul II entered a Greek Orthodox church that was, like the rest of Quneitra, in ruins.

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

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CNN's Brent Sadler on why is this a landmark trip for any papacy

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CNN's Brent Sadler: Syrians welcome Pope with open arms

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A pilgrimage for peace

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  IN-DEPTH
Mideast struggle for peace

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The Syrian government and many international observers say Israeli forces sacked the town before handing it back to Syria in 1974. Israel, which still holds most of the rest of the Golan, says Quneitra was damaged in fighting.

After a few moments of silent prayer, John Paul, who is on a four-day visit to Syria, raised his head and, speaking into microphones, prayed aloud.

"We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East. Help them to break down walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity.

"May all believers find the courage to forgive one another so that the wounds of the past may be healed and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present," he added.

After his prayer, John Paul emerged from the church to water a small olive tree -- a symbol of peace. After a short tour of the battered town, he returned to Damascus.

Syria has not rebuilt the town but has left it as a memorial to what Damascus calls Israeli atrocities until the entire Golan, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, is back in Syrian hands. Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have stalled.

John Paul II also stopped on Monday at the Church of St. Paul on the Wall. The shrine was built in the 1930s on the spot where St. Paul is said to have fled over the walls of Damascus in the first century to escape Jews angered at his passionate attempts to sway them to Christianity.

'No justification' for violence

The pope used Sunday's visit to the Great Omayyad mosque in Damascus to urge Christians and Muslims to forgive each other for the past, but he also heard a tirade against Israel by Syria's most senior Muslim leader.

Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro urged "the Catholic church all over the world with his holiness the pope at its head and the Christian governments of the West to stand in support of justice and put pressure on Israel by every means to curb its atrocious aggression."

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 Mohammed.

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.

And the pope said in his address to Muslim leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Syria: "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."



RELATED STORIES:
Pope pleads for Muslim, Christian forgiveness
Pope appeals for Mideast peace
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Pope begins controversial tour

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Greek Orthodox Church
Vatican
Roman Catholic Church in Greece
Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch

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