Syria seeks to gain respect in eyes of visiting pope, world

Nation to showcase heritage and change under new president

May 04, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DAMASCUS, Syria - Pope John Paul II arrives on a four-day pilgrimage tomorrow in a land anxious to discard its rigid, insular image and display a rich treasury of religious and cultural traditions thousands of years old.

Since the death in June of President Hafez el Assad, Syria has begun a difficult, painful transition from an economically backward police state to a modern nation with renewed pride in its heritage as a crossroads and cradle of civilizations.

But as it opens haltingly to the world, Syria remains in a formal state of war with Israel, faces growing opposition over its control of Lebanon and is unable to shake a hard-line, anti-Western reputation acquired over three decades under Assad.

"We want the Holy Father to be a window for us, so all the world can see the reality of Syria," said Archbishop Isidore Battikha, deputy patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church of Syria and a key organizer of the pope's visit.

"We are again on the `terrorist list,'" Battikha said, referring to Syria's inclusion on the U.S. State Department's annual list of states that sponsor terrorism. "It's wrong. And now I am happy that the Holy Father comes here so the world will see the reality of Syria and will be sure that we are not terrorist, we are simple people and we ask only to be in peace."

Pope John Paul, who brought a fleeting moment of comfort and healing to Israel and the Palestinian territories during his visit last year to the Holy Land, is expected to try to do the same here, in the first visit by a pope to Syria.

Through a first-ever visit by a pope to a mosque, celebration of an outdoor Mass for 40,000 and a visit to the war ruins of Quneitra on the edge of the Golan Heights, he will seek to improve relations between Christians and Muslims, shore up the struggling minority Christian communities of the Middle East, promote peace and take at least a symbolic stand against continued Israeli occupation of Arab territory.

Pope John Paul's journey to Syria, just after his visit to Greece, retraces the steps of the Apostle Paul, a Jewish Pharisee who, according to the New Testament, became a convert to Christianity after Jesus' death and spread the Christian message throughout the Near East.

Paul was en route to Damascus from Jerusalem, reputedly to arrest and persecute followers of Jesus, when he was struck by a powerful light and saw a vision of Christ. Blinded, he was led into the city, where a man named Ananias, acting under the Lord's instruction, restored his sight.

In a subsequent trip, he escaped enemies by having himself lowered from the top of the city wall in a basket.

Important sites along Paul's path have been hastily but diligently refurbished for the pope's visit, and Damascenes' pride in his arrival is mixed with a relief that long-needed public improvements are being completed.

Along the legendary Street Called Straight, where Ananias was instructed to find Paul, old cobblestones have given way to smooth asphalt, to offer the pontiff's vehicle a gentler ride.

"The stones were better," says shopkeeper Elie Kassis with a shrug. Nearby, ancient beam-and-stucco ruins atop the Roman Empire-era city wall are being whitewashed. Down a side street is a church claiming to be the oldest in the world, an underground crypt in what is said to have been Ananias' house. The pope, 81 and weak, won't descend to the crypt.

At a Catholic convent and orphanage where Paul was lowered from the wall, volunteer Miguel Khoury, 78, a former professional wrestler who spent much of his life in Latin America, eagerly looks forward to seeing the pope stop in for a prayer. "I might see the face of Christ in the pope," he said.

At the stadium where Pope John Paul will celebrate a Mass and draw his biggest crowd, workmen re-topped the central section of bleachers with marble.

On the stage, designer Ammar Torbey has re-created in precisely proportioned Styrofoam a site the pope reportedly longed to visit but couldn't: the colonnaded ruin of the Basilica of St. Simeon Stylites near Aleppo, a shrine to a saint who showed his devotion by fasting for years atop a pillar.

Christian and Muslim history will merge powerfully when the pope visits the vast, magnificent Ummayad Mosque in Old Damascus. Built atop a religious site dating from 900 B.C., later a Roman temple to Jupiter, the mosque replaced a church named for John the Baptist. For a time Christians and Muslims both prayed there.

In deference to Muslim sensitivities, the pope won't join prayers at the mosque, but his presence there is intended to send a powerful message of coexistence between Christians and Muslims.

"As a religious Muslim I welcome all visitors, everybody who believes in God," said Imam Nizar al Khatib, 70, a senior cleric at the mosque, as he folded fabric in his shop at the adjacent marketplace.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.