Pope journeys in the footsteps of St Paul

 Pope John Paul II is now half way through his historic pilgrimage, following in the steps of St Paul through Greece, Syria and Malta. On the journey so far, the Pope has made great efforts to build bridges between the Moslem, Christian and Jewish faiths, and the tour has been marked with groundbreaking events witnessed by huge crowds. Prior to his arrival in Greece, Orthodox monks had staged several very hostile protests, objecting to the visit, and no member of the Orthodox Church took part in the official welcome at the airport. Later that day, on a hill overlooking Athens, where St Paul preached 2,000 years ago, the head of the Greek Orthodox church, Archbishop Christodoulos presented him with a list of 'offences', from the 11th century Great Schism which divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches, to the plight of modern Cyprus. He said the "traumatic experiences remain as open wounds on (the Greek people's) vigorous body." He said: "We are waiting for a bold word from your lips - and we have not heard even one word of apology until now." Pope John Paul II responded by asking for forgiveness for Roman Catholic sins of action and omission against Orthodox Christians. In particular he spoke of the sacking of Constantinople by Catholic Crusaders in 1204, that contributed to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire about three centuries later. The fall of the city - now Istanbul - is one of the major disputes that have poisoned relations between the two churches. The Pope said: "It is tragic that the assailants, which set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret." He prayed for God's forgiveness for "the occasions, past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters". Archbishop Christodoulos applauded the Popes speech and they embraced at the end of their meeting, although a church spokesman said no joint prayers or theological discussions were held. Yesterday, (Saturday), the Pope lead religious services in a covered stadium before travelling to the airport to continue his trip. Later that day, he arrived in Damascus. He was greeted at the airport by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who launched into a verbal attack on the Israelis, accusing them of killing and torturing Palestinians. "Justice demands that Syrian and Palestinian lands should be returned to their owners," President Bashar said in his welcoming speech. He asked the Pope to remember in his prayers the suffering of the people of the Golan Heights and of Palestine. The Pope replied by appealing to all parties to seek a lasting peace and a new attitude of understanding, based on international law. "We all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the people of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahimic religions," he said. He described his pilgrimage as an ardent prayer of hope. Today, the Pope will become the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church ever to enter a mosque. The Vatican says the visit to the Umayyad mosque - one of the holiest sites in Islam, as well as the scene of St Paul's conversion - will also be the first time that Muslims and Christians have prayed together in an organised way. The Pope will return to Rome early next week, via the island of Malta, where St Paul was shipwrecked.

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