DAMASCUS, Syria — Pope John Paul II was able to fulfill two out of three of his pilgrimage goals in the Jubilee year.
He followed in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus in the Holy Land, but not in St. Paul's footsteps in Syria…until now.
Whereas religious discord prevented Pope John Paul II from making a Jubilee pilgrimage to all the places he wanted to last year, what he found in Damascus this early May was religious harmony.
“Here…sacred history can be read like an open book in the countryside,” said the Holy Father at Damascus.
Also sacred unity.
“I think Damascus must be the most ecumenical city in the world,” said Marah (Joy) Haddad, a Lebanese Orthodox on hand to see the Pope.
One of the great signs of this togetherness was the expressed desire from both Orthodox and Catholics on several occasions during the Pope's trip to celebrate Easter together.
“Our patriarch declared today that we want to have Easter together forever,” said Nemer Haddad to the Register, a Greek Orthodox and the president of the Legion of Mary in Syria who attended the youth meeting at the Greek Catholic Cathedral on the last night on the trip.
In a stark contrast to how the Holy Father was received in Greece, Nemer added, “The patriarch promised and it's not just talk. So maybe it will happen next year, at least for Syria and then with some steps the other countries will join us.”
Bassel Aris is the leader of the Scouts in Syria, a Catholic version of the Boy Scouts. A Melkite-rite Catholic, Aris comes from a mixed Orthodox-Catholic family. Many Orthodox are also members of his troop.
Aris, who presented John Paul with an icon of the Lady of Damascus at a stadium Mass, told the Register, “We people don't have any problem with having Easter together. The problem is with some of [the clergy and elders]. We would like to have the same Easter and it's a shame that usually we celebrate Easter first and then they do.”
Although the primary intention of the Holy Father's trip was to make a pilgrimage in the steps of St. Paul, it also served to highlight for the world an example of the way Christians and Muslims live together in peace every day in Syria.
“As a Muslim, the Pope's trip means a lot to me because many of his events are to show brotherhood between Christians and Muslims,” said Ramez Mawas.
Mawas, 24, attended the youth event and said, “It doesn't matter here socially what religion you are, but what matters is how you deal with other people. The Pope's witness increases my faith in the God of Abraham…There's something special about him for sure.”
When asked how Muslims view the Pope's trip to Syria, the first papal visit ever to a largely Islamic country, he said, “I have heard no one say anything negative about Pope John Paul; on the contrary everybody is excited and eager to see him.”
Besides showcasing the way Christians and Muslims can coexist, many people in Syria also hope the Pope's trip will help bring about a real and lasting peace in the Middle East.
The highpoint in this mission was when the Holy Father went to the Syrian part of the Golan Heights to pray for peace.
“It's a historic event that is very important for Syria and very important for the Middle East,” said Msgr. Denis Madden, vice president of a New York-based Catholic humanitarian and pastoral agency that helps Middle East countries.
“When the Holy Father said the prayer, planted the olive tree for peace and looked across the Golan Heights, I just had the feeling that he was trying to tell all the parties involved,” Msgr. Madden added, “that now it's time to begin to rebuild in a real genuine way this whole peace.”
Syria has left the destroyed city, Quneitra, unrestored after the 1967 bombing by Israel. It is meant to be a showcase for the world.
This rebuilding process can begin with further unity among Christians, reported Aid to the Church in Need. It's a path of working for peace much different than the diplomatic process between political leaders — which is nonetheless important, but a field the Pope avoided completely during his pilgrimage.
An ecumenical encouter at the Orthodox Church on the Pope's first night in Damascus was the Pope's first ceremony inside the city after he was officially welcomed at the airport.
The Orthodox present cheered wildly for the Pope, an emotion-filled event that showcased the enthusiastic response he has gotten in the area.
Father Malathius, a Greek Orthodox told the Register, “We pray and hope that all the Christians in Syria will be one and that will give us strength.”
The Christians hope that this strength will help in a country so important for the Middle East peace process.
After the youth meeting at the Greek Catholic Cathedral, Patriarch Gregory III said, “I thank all the people who made the Pope's trip possible, his most important visit in the Middle East.”
Thousands of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant youth partied long after the Pope and almost all of the media had left the ceremony at the cathedral.
The Patriarch was carried through the crowd and hoisted up onto the shoulders of his escorts, before making his way to the stage in the courtyard in front of the Church of the Dormition of Mary.
He said to the ecstatic young people, “Pope John Paul goes on for us while being sick and old, and that's very important. I challenge every young person in Syria to discover the powers of love and faith. I wish that the Pope comes again.”
And indeed many of the Christians in Damascus expressed the same hopes, that the Pope would come again to Syria very soon.
The small Greek Catholic patriarchy, just off the “street called straight,” where St. Paul walked, sits in the heart of Damascus’ Christian Quarter.
Although, a minority in the country, the Christians stick closely together.
Nemer of the Legion of Mary summed up the Pope's farewell celebration of peace and brotherhood at the Catholic patriarchy, “The Pope is here shedding light on ‘the way,’ as the Christians here in the time of St. Paul were called.”
The Pope himself gave his own gloss on what — and who — might be behind the trip's success.
“The Lord meets everyone on their journey, often in a mysterious and unexpected way, just as he met Paul on the road to Damascus, surrounding him with his brilliant light.”
John Drogin, based in Rome, filed this report from Damascus.