Pope prays at Mount Sinai, calls for religious dialogue

Visit to ancient monastery is high point of Egypt trip

February 27, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOUNT SINAI, Egypt -- Saying he felt "great joy and deep emotion," Pope John Paul II prayed yesterday at the spot where tradition says Moses once stood, and called himself a pilgrim "in the footsteps of God."

The trip was a personal triumph for the 79-year-old pope, who had long dreamed of visiting the Holy Lands. But it was shadowed by disappointment.

The pope, who spoke at St. Catherine's, the monastery at the foothills of Mount Sinai that is one of the most revered sites in the Greek Orthodox Church, had once hoped to gather there Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to symbolize religious reconciliation in the new millennium. Objections by the Greek Orthodox monks, among others, dashed that plan.

Poignantly, the pope alluded to his unfulfilled dream. Describing the wind from Mount Sinai as a sign from God, the pope said, "It carries an insistent invitation to dialogue between the followers of the great monotheistic religions."

The pope spoke to several hundred cheering believers in an olive grove on the monastery grounds. He was seated under a tent beside a pink-budded almond tree, with Mount Sinai's peaks at his back.

The crowd shouted, "John Paul II, we love you!" so often that the pope at one point replied, "John Paul II loves you too." When the crowd waved olive branches as he left, the pope waved back.

Before the prayer service, the pope toured the sixth-century monastery, asking questions about its icons and collection of illuminated manuscripts -- the world's second-largest after the Vatican's.

In the monastery chapel, which tradition says was built on top of the roots of Moses' burning bush, the pope fell to his knees and prayed alone for 10 minutes.

When he reached the relics of St. Catherine, a fourth-century Christian martyr, the pope, in an ancient ritual, took a ring, placed it on the bones of her finger and skull and then kissed the ring.

The visit was the emotional high point of John Paul's three-day trip -- the first papal visit to Egypt. The pope, who looked tired and weak during much of the journey, delivered his speech yesterday in a clear, forceful voice.

Greek Orthodox monks helped him down the steps to the podium, but his spokesman said he needed no assistance to kneel at the site of the burning bush.

The Greek Orthodox Church does not recognize the authority of the pope, and its leaders are wary of ecumenical rapprochement.

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