AP World News
John Paul II Held Unique Place in Mideast
By DONNA ABU-NASR
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
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,
and the Palestinian areas between 1997 and 2001 gave heart to the region's
"He's been a big support," said Bishop Youhana
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
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
The Greek Catholic archbishop in Damascus, Isidore Battikha, said the pope
was familiar with eastern churches because they were represented in Poland, John
"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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