AP World News


John Paul II Held Unique Place in Mideast

Associated Press Writer

April 5, 2005, 4:02 AM EDT

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Sheik Salah Keftaro has a picture on his office wall of John Paul II standing next to his father, like his son a prominent Muslim cleric.

Some visitors object to the picture, taken during the pope's May 2001 trip to Syria. But to Keftaro, it sums up John Paul's message to the Middle East.

The pope was "an advocate of dialogue and coexistence," said Keftaro, head of the Abu Nour Islamic Foundation, a theology school that teaches Islam to about 6,000 students from around the world.

"Muslims and Christians alike have lost the pope," he said. His words echoed those of religious leaders throughout the region after they learned of the pope's death Saturday.

John Paul won high praise from Arab Christians for trying to bridge the differences among their various sects. He also was warmly regarded by many Muslims for efforts on their behalf during his 26-year papacy.

The first pope to visit a mosque, John Paul repeatedly called for religious tolerance, spoke out against the Iraq war and called for a peaceful end to the 56-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

The pope's death "is a big loss for the Catholic Church and the Islamic world," said Sheik Sayed Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious center of learning.

But John Paul also came under attack in the Middle East for blessing Israel and for the Holy See's recognition of the Jewish state.

Lebanon's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, was shocked when the pope announced plans to visit Israel in March 1999. Last week, however, he expressed hope "the course of dialogue charted by the Holy See would lead to all religions converging on faith in God and on confronting the world arrogance that is treating people unjustly," a reference to the United States.

In 2000, Jordan's main Islamic political group, the Islamic Action Front, criticized John Paul's participation in a ceremony at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to mourn Jews killed in the Holocaust. But after his death, the group expressed condolences to Catholics around the world.

"We appreciate the late pope's position in supporting Arab causes, like the Palestinian issue and Iraq, and we hope the Vatican will continue in the same path," leading member Jamil Abu-Bakr said Sunday.

The Middle East was almost entirely Christian before the 7th century Muslim conquests. But Christians are now a minority and their influence has waned. Egypt's Christian Copts account for about 10 percent of the country's 72 million people. In Lebanon, Christians make up about 35 percent of the 3.5 million people while in Syria, with a population of 17 million, they represent about 10 percent.

While Maronite Catholics in Lebanon and Egypt's Coptic Catholic Church follow the pope, most in the region -- like the Eastern Orthodox, non-Catholic Armenians and the main Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church -- have their own hierarchy and do not recognize the pope's supremacy.

Christians generally coexist peacefully with Muslims in the region. In Egypt, however, Islamic radicals have targeted Christians, who often complain of discrimination in getting jobs and political posts. In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims fought in the 1975-90 civil war but have since reconciled. The country remains the only one in the overwhelmingly Islamic Arab world with a non-Muslim head of state. Lebanon's president is a Maronite Catholic.

The pope's visits to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian areas between 1997 and 2001 gave heart to the region's Christians.

"He's been a big support," said Bishop Youhana of Egypt's Coptic Catholic Church.

The first of the Mideast visits was to Lebanon in 1997, where John Paul was already popular among Christians for inviting Lebanese bishops to the Vatican in 1995 for their first special synod. The bishops called on Syria and Israel to withdraw troops. Israel withdrew in May 2000 but Syria's troops are only now pulling out.

In Syria in 2001, he became the first pope to enter a Muslim place of worship, visiting the revered Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. He also met with leaders of Syria's non-Catholic churches.

The Greek Catholic archbishop in Damascus, Isidore Battikha, said the pope was familiar with eastern churches because they were represented in Poland, John Paul's homeland.

"He knew the people. He didn't need anyone to bring him files and inform him about them or about our problems," he said.

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