Visit to Damascus mosque yet another first for Pope John Paul


DAMASCUS, Syria, AP

Pope John Paul II made history again Sunday, becoming the first pope ever to enter a mosque, only the latest “first” accomplished by the first Polish pope.

“Very Wojtyla like,” was the way his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, described the historic visit to the Omayyad Mosque. He used John Paul’s Polish last name.

It was part of his drive to strengthen Catholic relations with other religions that recalled his groundbreaking visit to Rome’s main synagogue in 1986, a visit warmly welcomed by many Jews around the world.

Since becoming the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul, undeterred by his physical ailments, has accomplished numerous goals he has set for himself.

As the most traveled pope in history, the 80-year-old John Paul has visited more than 100 countries. His pilgrimage to Cuba, whose communist government has restricted the church, was a papal first, as was his triumphant return to his homeland in 1979.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has said that Polish trip, which generated a huge turnout in the mainly Roman Catholic country, helped undermine communism across Europe.

Cardinal Roberto Tucci, chief organizer of papal trips, explained that before the Syrian trip “they (Muslims) had not invited us”to a mosque. “And we didn’t want to offend anyone by asking.” When the invitation came, Tucci said,”I went to the pope and asked whether he had any problem with it. He said ‘no.'”

During the mosque visit, the mufti’s personal physician, Dr. Muhammed Tarakji, marveled at the pope’s will to keep going despite his physical ailments. His speech is slurred and his hands tremble, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder. He walks with difficulty since a 1994 hip replacement operation.

“But what matters is that he came here out of love,” the doctor said.

Among other firsts are the apologies he has offered over the past year for sins committed by Catholics over the centuries. He offered such regrets Friday in Athens in a bid to defuse ancient tensions with Greek Orthodox Christians.

Not all cardinals are said to be pleased with the statements asking God’s forgiveness, but John Paul has insisted on the policy of “purifying memories.”