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On the Road to Damascus

“In the footsteps of St. Paul,” Msgr. Stern recalls the Pope’s pilgrimage journey to Syria.

On Friday, 4 May, according to the Roman lectionary, the first reading at Mass was the passage from The Acts of the Apostles about St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It was a happy coincidence that I was taking the road to Damascus from Beirut that very morning.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, Gregorios III, had invited CNEWA’s Associate Secretary General, Msgr. Denis J. Madden; CNEWA’s Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, Issam Bishara; and me to be his personal guests for the duration of Pope John Paul’s pilgrimage visit to Syria.


The independence of the Syrian Arab Republic dates from 17 April 1946. However, it proudly cherishes its ancient patrimony as a cradle of civilization and of two great monotheistic religions.

Syria was sometimes the seat of empire, sometimes a part of empire. About 4,500 years ago a great Semitic empire centered in northern Syria extended from the Red Sea to what is now modern Turkey and east to Mesopotamia. Two thousand five hundred years later, at Jesu’s birth, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” the entire Mediterranean world was under Rome.

Syria came under Muslim rule in 636. The ancient city of Damascus became the capital of the Uma yyad Caliphate, the Muslim empire that extended from Spain to India, from 661 to 750.

For four hundred years before World War I, Syria and all the Near East was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the war, until its independence, Syria was governed by France with a mandate from the League of Nations.

Today Syria is a rapidly developing country of 16,110,000 people, most of whom are Muslim. About 10 percent of the population is Christian, including 309,000 members of various Catholic churches. Although the president must be Muslim, Syria is a secular state. The Christian churches freely maintain their institutions and services to their people and, in some ways, e.g., tax exemptions, are favored by the government.

Welcome ceremony

Thousands of young police officers lined both sides of the road to the Damascus International Airport on the afternoon of Sunday, 5 May. When the Alitalia flight carrying the Pope and his modest entourage landed, the President of Syria, Dr. Bashar Assad, the ministers of his government and all the patriarchs and bishops of Syria were on hand to greet and welcome the Holy Father.

Syrian and papal flags were flying, an honor guard stood at attention and the band was playing as the tall young President warmly greeted the stooped and frail visitor who slowly stepped onto Syrian soil, the first pope ever to visit Syria – although eight earlier popes were Syrian-born.

The speech of President Assad was laced with many warm welcomes, as is the Arab way, and references to Syris rich Christian and Muslim heritage. However, it had some dissonant words as well. He not only spoke about those who are afflicting the Palestinian people and occupying Arab lands – i.e. Israel, although he didn’t mention the name – but also accused them of opposing “the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ.”

From the political perspective, for Israel – and to a large extent the West – Syria is perceived harshly and negatively. For the Syrian government, the opposite holds true – Israel is the enemy. Regrettably they make no distinction between Judaism, Zionism and the policies of the government of Israel.

In his talk, the Pope eschewed the political, speaking primarily of the religious dimensions of his visit and of his respect for the faiths and people of Syria. The Pope, however, could not ignore the tensions and conflicts troubling the Middle East.

He reaffirmed that “it is time to return to the principles of international legality: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations Organization and the Geneva conventions.”

The Pope also gently offered a counterpoint to the harsh words of the President, stating that “we all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect among the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions.”

He said it is important “that there be an evolution in the way the peoples of the region see one another, and that at every level of society the principles of peaceful coexistence be taught and promoted.”

Ecumenical meeting

After his courtesy visit to the President of the Syrian Arab Republic at the Presidential Palace, the popemobile took Pope John Paul II straight to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Virgin Mary in the old center of Damascus.

There he was warmly welcomed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Ignatius IV. Two other patriarchs of Antioch stood at his side: Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III.

The packed cathedral included not only the Catholic and Orthodox bishops of Syria, but most of the other Catholic patriarchs, many of the Greek and Syrian Orthodox bishops of the two patriarchates from other countries around the world and an enthusiastic congregation.

Actually Syria is one of the most ecumenical places in the world. The three patriarchs who live in Damascus are truly brothers in Christ. Greek, Syrian, Maronite, Armenian and Latin Christians live peacefully side by side, often intermarrying and frequenting one another’s churches.

Beautiful symbols of unity were a joint profession of the Creed, warm and loving words from both the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Pope, a mutual embrace or kiss of peace and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by all.

Sometimes we talk so much about the need for Christian unity we almost forget how much real unity already exists.

Holy Mass on Sunday

Damascus’ Abbassyin Stadium holds almost 30,000 people. I think most of them were long since at hand when the Pope arrived to offer a public Mass at 9:30 Sunday morning. It was a moment of prayer for all Christians. Catholic bishops and priests concelebrated; Orthodox patriarchs and bishops shared the sanctuary – a great roofed stage at one side of the central oval of the stadium.

Coincidentally, 6 May was not only Good Shepherd Sunday in the Latin calendar but also the World Day of Vocations in the Catholic Church and the Syrian national holiday commemorating the “Martyrs of Liberty.”

It was a long but happy morning for the thousands there. Songs and cheers punctuated the celebration of the liturgy and the homily of the Pope. An orchestra played, choirs sang and the Latin-rite Mass incorporated elements and chants from the various Eastern churches. Mercifully, there were intermittent clouds to shield the warm sun. Damascus is a city with almost a desert climate – even a day in May can be very hot.

As one of the many concelebrants, I was privileged to help in the distribution of Communion. It seemed like everyone wished to share in the Eucharist. So many young adults were there – Christian faith in Syria is alive and well.

Meeting with patriarchs and bishops. The root meaning of the word “companion” is one who breaks bread with you. Clearly this was an apt word to describe the Catholic and Orthodox bishops who were hosted to lunch with the Holy Father at the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate following the outdoor Mass.

Somehow I had a place at one of the tables too. Much to my surprise I was seated across from Bishop Afram Athnil, Bishop of Hassake, Syria, of the Assyrian Church of the East. Just a few years before he had completed his theological formation at Mundelein Seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago with a scholarship from CNEWA.

Lunch is an inadequate word to describe this magnificent meal, given through the generosity of a local benefactor. The food was wonderful, but the warm words exchanged by patriarchs on behalf of their churches were rich food for the spirit.

Meeting with clergy and religious

Just a short walk from the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarchate through the narrow streets of old Damascus is the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral of St. George. Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I invited the Pope there to greet the clergy and religious of all the Christian churches – and the Syrian Orthodox laity as well.

The small cathedral was jammed. The overflow crowd followed the service by television in the courtyards. Boy scouts in uniform lined the street. The arrival of the popemobile was heralded by an enthusiastic burst of music from the band.

The Holy Father’s entrance into the cathedral was accompanied by an entrance chant in Syriac, or Aramaic, the language spoken by the Lord and still used by the churches of the Syrian tradition. (There are three villages left in Syria where the spoken language still lives.)

Happily, this day was also the feast of St. George. Although he’s associated with England by many in the West, St. George was actually a Middle Eastern martyr. His veneration began at Lydda in Palestine in the fourth century and gradually spread throughout both East and West.

Meeting with Muslim leaders

An astounding event culminated this challenging first full day of the Pope’s visit to Syria. Toward evening, he traveled through the narrow covered streets of the suq or old market, which was lined with thousands of Muslims. He was on his way to greet the Muslim leaders of Syria in the Umayyad Great Mosque, for 13 centuries one of the most important mosques in Islam.

Hundreds of robed and turbaned sheikhs and scholars awaited the arrival of the Pope in the vast porticoed courtyard outside the doors of the mosque. A small group of bishops was invited to attend along with the papal party from Rome.

The Pope first visited the memorial of St. John the Baptist, which is still venerated in the great mosque. Originally a Byzantine church built to enshrine the head of the Baptist, it was rebuilt and enlarged as a mosque in the seventh century.

After emerging from the mosque, a formal meeting was held in the great courtyard. The sheikh of the great mosque cordially welcomed the pilgrim Bishop of Rome, the first pope to visit a mosque in the entire span of Christian history.

The Minister of Islamic Religious Trusts spoke first, then the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, and finally the Holy Father.

Beforehand, I had the opportunity to greet the Mufti. A friend of many years, he once invited me to speak in his mosque during regular Friday services. Sheikh Kaftaro has long been an advocate of Muslim-Christian dialogue and understanding. Once he had been received by the Pope in Rome; it was a happy reciprocation for the Pope himself to be welcomed by the Mufti in Damascus.

In the footsteps of St. Paul

Monday morning, 7 May, Msgr. Madden and I were waiting in the little church of St. Paul on the Wall. It’s actually built into one of the gates of the old city of Damascus, Bab Kissan, and commemorates how St. Paul escaped the city by being lowered over the wall in a basket from a window.

I could identify with that, for my room in the patriarchate was built over the wall too, my window just a few hundred feet from the shrine dedicated to St. Paul.

When Pope John Paul arrived, he was delighted by the welcome of a small group of children from the Melkite Greek Catholic orphanage located by the shrine, and went over to embrace them. I was delighted too – for years, this institution was part of CNEWA’s Needy Child Program.

A brief moment of prayer was all that the Pope’s busy schedule allowed. He then left for another stop, the Memorial of St. Paul, a church in a poor quarter of the city, before leaving for Quneitra.

Prayer for peace in Quneitra

Thirty-six miles south of Damascus are the ruins of Quneitra. Once a large – and in large part Christian – village in the Golan Heights, its houses were blown up by the Israeli army when they pulled back to the edge of a United Nations-monitored demilitarized zone between the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory of the Golan and Syria itself.

No one lives in Quneitra now. The Syrian government leaves the ruins untouched as a reminder of the past – and present – hostilities. For the occasion of the papal visit, thousands of people were there; many of them original inhabitants, long since displaced to poor neighborhoods in Damascus.

A cool breeze blew across the verdant countryside, flowers bloomed alongside shattered, tilted concrete slabs. The Pope, accompanied by Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs, entered the abandoned shell of the Greek Orthodox parish church to kneel in a prayer for peace.

A brief but significant ceremony followed. The Holy Father watered a small olive tree planted as a symbol of peace and memorial of his visit.

“Merciful Father,” he prayed, “may all believers find the courage to forgive one another, so that the wounds of the past may be healed, and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present. May this happen above all in the Holy Land, this land which you have blessed with so many signs of your Providence, and where you have revealed yourself as the God of Love.”


Youth meeting

Late Monday afternoon several thousand young people jammed the Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and all the courtyards and streets around the patriarchate. Banners were flying, flags were waved and loudspeakers animated the huge crowd with music and song.

The sight and sound of the young people animated the Pope too. He lit up at the sight of this tumultuous welcome as his special little car brought him to the doors of the cathedral.

By now a familiar sight, the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies and clergy together awaited him in the church amid the throngs of teenagers and young adults cheering his entrance. “John Paul Two, we love you” they shouted in English amid cheers and songs in Arabic.

Several of the youths made brief addresses to the Pope and, of course, he warmly greeted them. Although he spoke in French, his words were repeated in Arabic and often interrupted by applause.

Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III received a tremendous acclaim when, in the course of his address, he said he would change the date of the celebration of Easter in Syria to the same Sunday celebrated by the Orthodox.

The celebration of Easter on separate days by Catholics and Orthodox is very unpopular, especially where Christians are a minority. The papal visit occasioned this important gesture toward Christian unity.

Farewell ceremony

Tuesday morning, 8 May, the Pope and the accompanying officials of the Holy See were once again at the airport. John Paul had barely spent 72 hours in Syria, yet they were three unforgettable days for the country and especially for its Christian population.

President Bashar Assad, escorted by his government ministers, was there once again to bid a formal farewell to the Pope and his group. Again, the President spoke, this time to bid the Holy Father farewell, and the Pope to give his thanks and pledge of prayers for the President, his government and the people of Syria.

As-salamu ‘alaikum (Peace with you),” were Pope John Paul’s first and final words in Syria – as well as those of the President.

I was there with a small group of patriarchs and bishops. We each had a chance to greet the President and bid farewell to the Pope as he boarded a special Syrian Air flight to Malta, his last stop on the way to Rome.

The Holy Father walked the remaining distance along the red carpet to the plane. An honor guard in full dress uniform flanked the Pope’s way, a stiff wind blowing his robes as he walked. He slowly mounted the stairs to the plane. The door was sealed and the steps removed. As the plane began to move away to the head of the runway, the President himself stood waving goodbye. He stood for all of Syria.

Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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