Pope's Pilgimage: John Paul II In Damascus, Syria

Published: Mon 7 May 2001 10:34 AM
Transcripts from Vatican Website
In this item...
6. Meeting with the Muslim leaders - Omayyad Great Mosque, Damascus - ADDRESS OF THE HOLY FATHER
INCLUDING THE QUOTE: "It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict. It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction."
Saturday, 5 May 2001
Mr President,
Members of the Government,
Brother Patriarchs and Bishops,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. As I arrive in Damascus, this "pearl of the East", I am deeply aware that I am visiting a very ancient land, which has played a vital role in the history of this part of the world. Syria’s literary, artistic and social contribution to the flourishing of culture and civilization is renowned. I am most grateful to you, Mr President, and to the Members of the Government, for making my visit to Syria possible, and I thank you for your kind words of welcome. I greet the civil, political and military Authorities graciously present, as well as the distinguished members of the Diplomatic Corps.
I come as a pilgrim of faith, continuing my Jubilee Pilgrimage to some of the places especially connected with God’s self-revelation and his saving actions (cf. Letter Concerning Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation, 1). Today he allows me to continue this pilgrimage here, in Syria, in Damascus, and to greet all of you in friendship and brotherhood. I greet the Patriarchs and Bishops who are here, representing the Syrian Christian community. My heartfelt greeting goes to all the followers of Islam who live in this noble land. Peace be with you all! As-salámã ‘aláikum!
2. My Jubilee Pilgrimage marking the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ actually began last year, with the commemoration of Abraham, to whom God’s call came not far from here in the region of Haran. Later, I was able to travel to Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. And then there was my unforgettable visit to the Holy Land, where Jesus fulfilled his saving mission and founded his Church. Now my mind and heart turn to the figure of Saul of Tarsus, the great Apostle Paul, whose life was changed for ever on the road to Damascus. My ministry as Bishop of Rome is linked in a special way to the witness of Saint Paul, a witness crowned by his martyrdom in Rome.
3. How can I forget the magnificent contribution of Syria and the surrounding region to the history of Christianity? From the very beginning of Christianity, flourishing communities were to be found here. In the Syrian desert Christian monasticism flourished; and the names of Syrians such as Saint Ephraem and Saint John Damascene are etched for ever in Christian memory. Some of my predecessors were born in this area.
I am thinking too of the great cultural influence of Syrian Islam, which under the Umayyad Caliphs reached the farthest shores of the Mediterranean. Today, in a world that is increasingly complex and interdependent, there is a need for a new spirit of dialogue and cooperation between Christians and Muslims. Together we acknowledge the one indivisible God, the Creator of all that exists. Together we must proclaim to the world that the name of the one God is "a name of peace and a summons to peace" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 55)!
4. As the word "peace" echoes in our hearts, how can we not think of the tensions and conflicts which have long troubled the region of the Middle East? So often hopes for peace have been raised, only to be dashed by new waves of violence. You, Mr President, have wisely confirmed that a just and global peace is in the best interests of Syria. I am confident that under your guidance Syria will spare no effort to work for greater harmony and cooperation among the peoples of the region, in order to bring lasting benefits not only to your own land, but also to other Arab countries and the whole international community. As I have publicly stated on other occasions, 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, to quote only the most important" (Speech to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, 13 January 2001, No. 3).
We all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions. Step by step, with vision and courage, the political and religious leaders of the region must create the conditions for the development that their peoples have a right to, after so much conflict and suffering. Among these conditions, 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. In this sense, my pilgrimage is also an ardent prayer of hope: hope that among the peoples of the region fear will turn to trust; and contempt to mutual esteem; that force will give way to dialogue; and that a genuine desire to serve the common good will prevail.
5. Mr President, the gracious invitation which you and the Government and people of Syria have extended to me, and the warmth of your welcome here today, are signs of our shared belief that peace and cooperation are indeed our common aspiration. I deeply appreciate your hospitality, so characteristic of this ancient and blessed land. May Almighty God grant you happiness and long life! May he bless Syria with prosperity and peace! As-salámã ‘aláikum!
Saturday, 5 May 2001
Your Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius
Your Holiness Patriarch Zakka
Venerable Bishops and Representatives of the Churches
and Ecclesial Communities of Syria,
1. "When he came and saw the grace of God, [Barnabas] was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (Acts 11:23-24). Such was the joy and amazement of the Apostle in Antioch, where he had been sent by the Church in Jerusalem. Today I share his joy and make my own his exhortation. This visit to Syria takes me back to the dawn of the Church, to the time of the Apostles and the first Christian communities. It concludes my pilgrimage in the Biblical lands which I began in the year 2000. It also provides the happy occasion to meet with you in Syria and to return the visits which you have made to the Church of Rome and to its Bishop.
In this Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, I greet most especially Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim. Your Beatitude, I thank you whole-heartedly for your fraternal welcome today and for this Liturgy of the Word which it is our joy to celebrate together. Your Beatitude’s interest and active involvement in the cause of Christian unity is known to all. It is something which I deeply appreciate and for which I thank God. Beloved Brother, I invoke the Lord’s blessing upon your ministry and upon the Church of which you are the Pastor.
2. Built upon the foundation of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Church in Syria was quick to show an extraordinary flourishing of the Christian life. With good reason, the Council of Nicea recognized the primacy of Antioch over the metropolitan Churches of the region. As we think particularly of Ignatius of Antioch, John Damascene and Simeon Stylites, how can we fail to recall as well the many confessors and martyrs of this region who adorned the beginnings of the Church by their fidelity to God’s grace, even to the point of shedding their blood! How many monks and nuns withdrew into solitude, filling the deserts and mountains of Syria with hermitages and monasteries, in order to live lives of prayer and sacrifice, praising God so that in this way they might, in the words of Theodore of Edessa, "attain to the state of beauty" (Discourse on Contemplation). How many Syrian theologians helped to establish the theological schools of Antioch and Edessa! How many missionaries left Syria to go to the East, following the great missionary movement to Mesopotamia and further still to Kerala in India. Is not the Church of the West greatly indebted to the many pastors of Syrian origin who assumed the ministry of Bishop there, even the ministry of the Bishop of Rome? May God be praised for the witness and the influence of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch!
Unfortunately, the unity of the illustrious Patriarchate of Antioch was lost through the centuries, and we must hope that the different Patriarchates existing now will once again find the path that will lead to full communion.
3. Between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Patriarchate a process of ecumenical rapprochement has begun, and for this I thank the Lord with all my heart. It is prompted by the desire of the Christian people, by dialogue between theologians, and by fraternal cooperation between the Bishops and pastors of the two Patriarchates. I urge all those involved to pursue this quest for unity with courage and prudence, with respect but without confusion, drawing from the Divine Liturgy the sacramental strength and theological stimulus which are needed in the process. The quest for unity between the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic Patriarchates of Antioch is clearly part of the wider process of reunion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. That is why I reaffirm my sincere desire that the Mixed International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches may soon be able to continue its work in the most appropriate way. The more this dialogue touches upon central questions, the more demanding it will become. This is no cause for surprise, and still less an excuse for lethargy. Who can stop us from placing our hope in the Spirit of God who does not cease to kindle holiness among the disciples of Christ’s Church? I wish to thank most sincerely Patriarch Ignatius IV for the positive and effective contribution which the Patriarchate of Antioch and its representatives have constantly made to this process of theological dialogue. I am likewise grateful to Patriarch Gregory III and his predecessor Patriarch Maximos V for their unfailing contribution to the climate of fraternity and understanding, which is so necessary if the dialogue is to develop well.
4. In the same spirit of gratitude and hope, I would like to mention the deepening of fraternal relations between the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate and the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate. I greet especially Patriarch Zakka I, in whom the Catholic Church has always found a faithful promoter of Christian unity, ever since the Second Vatican Council which he attended as an observer. Your Holiness, since your visit to Rome in 1984 it has been our joy to be able to make real progress on the road to unity, having confessed together Jesus Christ as our Lord, true God and true man. On the same occasion, we were able to authorize a plan of pastoral cooperation, notably at the level of sacramental life, in cases where the faithful have no access to a priest of their own Church. With the Syro-Malankar Church in India, which looks to your Patriarchal authority, the Catholic Church has equally good relations. I beg the Lord that the day will soon come when there will be an end to the final obstacles to full communion between the Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church.
5. In the course of time, and especially at the start of the twentieth century, Armenian, Chaldean and Assyrian communities, forced by violence to leave their homelands, came to the Christian quarters of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other parts of this region. In Syria they found refuge, a place of security and peace. I give thanks to the Lord God for the hospitality offered by the Syrian people on a number of occasions to Christians of the region suffering persecution. Transcending all ecclesial divisions, such hospitality became the pledge of an ecumenical rapprochement. In the person of the persecuted brother the Christ of Good Friday was recognized and welcomed.
Since then, by conviction and by necessity, the Christians of Syria have learnt the art of sharing hospitality and friendship. Ecumenical contact at the level of families, children, young people and the leaders of society holds the promise of the future of evangelization in this country. It will be up to you, Bishops and pastors, to accompany this happy process of rapprochement and communication with wisdom and courage. The cooperation of all Christians, whether at the level of social and cultural life, in promoting peace, or in the education of the young, is a clear indication of the degree of communion already existing between them (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 75).
By virtue of the apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist unite in very close bonds our particular Churches who call each other, and love to call each other, Sister Churches (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 14). "For centuries, we lived this life of ‘Sister Churches’, and together held Ecumenical Councils which guarded the deposit of faith against all corruption. And now, after a long period of division and mutual misunderstanding, the Lord is enabling us to discover ourselves as ‘Sister Churches’ once more, in spite of the obstacles which were once raised between us. If today, on the threshold of the third millennium, we are seeking the re-establishment of full communion, it is for the accomplishment of this reality that we must work and it is to this reality that we must refer" (Ut Unum Sint, 57).
6. Just a few weeks ago, we had the great joy of being able to celebrate the Feast of Easter on the same day. For me, this happy coincidence in the year 2001 was a pressing invitation of Providence, addressed to all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities, to return without delay to a common celebration of the Paschal Feast, the Feasts of all feasts, the central mystery of our faith. Our people rightly insist that the celebration of Easter should no longer be a cause of division. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has shown herself favourable to every effort to re-establish the common celebration of the Paschal Feast. Yet this process seems more difficult than anticipated. Is it perhaps necessary to envisage intermediate or gradual stages, in order to prepare minds and hearts for the implementation of an arrangement acceptable to all Christians of East and West? It falls to the Patriarchs and Bishops of the Middle East to assume together this responsibility with regard to their communities in the various countries of the region. From the Middle East there could be born and go forth a new energy and inspiration on this point.
7. A few weeks from now, we shall celebrate together the Feast of Pentecost. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit "will stir all the disciples of Christ to desire and to work for the peaceful union of all in one flock under one Shepherd, in the way decreed by Christ" (Lumen Gentium, 15). Let us implore the Spirit to make us grow in holiness, for there is no lasting unity which is not based upon humility, conversion and pardon, and therefore upon sacrifice.
When the Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost, the Virgin Mary was there in their midst. May her example and her protection help us to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches, even today, and to welcome his words with confidence and joy!
Sunday, 6 May 2001
1. "‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said: ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do" (Acts 9:4-6).
It is as a pilgrim that I have come today to Damascus, to commemorate the event which took place here two thousand years ago: the conversion of Saint Paul. On his way to Damascus to oppose and imprison those who confessed the name of Jesus, Saul, approaching the gates of the city, experiences an extraordinary illumination. On the road, the Risen Christ appears to him; the meeting deeply affects him and a profound inner transformation takes place. From being a persecutor he becomes an apostle, from an opponent of the Gospel, he becomes its missionary. The Acts of the Apostles recalls in detail the event which changed the course of history: "He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel: for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:15-16).
Your Beatitude, I thank you for your kind words of welcome at the beginning of this celebration. Through you I greet with affection the Bishops and the members of the Greek Melkite Church of which you are Patriarch. I warmly greet the Cardinals, Patriarchs, Bishops, priests and faithful of all the Catholic communities of Syria and the other countries of the region. I rejoice at the fraternal presence of the Patriarchs, Bishops and faithful of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. I extend heartfelt greetings to them. I thank the members of the Muslim community who have joined their Christian friends on this occasion.
2. The extraordinary event that took place not far from here was decisive for the future of Paul and the Church. The Apostle’s meeting with Christ radically changed his life, because it affected him at the most intimate level of his being and made him fully receptive to divine truth. Paul freely accepted this truth and freely agreed to commit his life to the following of Christ. By welcoming the divine light and receiving baptism, his deepest being was conformed to Christ. His life was thus transformed and he discovered happiness in placing his faith and trust in the One who had called him from darkness into his own wonderful light (cf. 2 Tim 1:12; Eph 5:8; Rom 13:12). Meeting the Risen One in faith is truly a light on man’s journey, a light which calls one’s whole life into question. On the shining face of Christ, God’s truth manifests itself in a spectacular way. May we too keep our gaze upon the Lord! O Christ, light of the world, cause to shine upon us and all men and women the heavenly light which surrounded your Apostle! Enlighten and purify the eyes of our heart, so that we may learn to see all things in the light of your truth and love of humanity!
The Church has no other light to pass on to the world than the light which come to her from her Lord. We have been baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ, we have received light from God and we have been made children of the Light. Let us recall the beautiful exclamation of Saint John Damascene which emphasises the origin of our common ecclesial vocation: "You have made me come into the light by adopting me as your son, and you have counted me among the members of your holy Church which is without stain" (De Fide Orthodoxa, 1)! On our journey, the word of God is a shining lamp; it enables us to know the truth that sets us free and makes us holy.
3. "I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples ad tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands" (Rev 7:9).
This reading in today’s Liturgy, taken from the Book of Revelation, shows, in its own way, the work wrought by Saint Paul’s apostolic ministry. Saint Paul played an essential role in the proclamation of the Gospel outside Israel. The Mediterranean lands became the focus of Paul’s evangelizing efforts. And we can say that subsequently, in the centuries that followed down to our own time, the immense progress of the proclamation of the Gospel follows in a sense logically from the ministry of the Apostle of the Nations. Down to our own time the Church continues to bear the fruits of his apostolic activity and constantly refers to the missionary ministry of Saint Paul, who became for whole generations of Christians the pioneer and inspirer of all mission.
Following the example of Saint Paul, the Church is invited to look to the ends of the earth in order to continue the mission entrusted to her to transmit the light of the Risen One to all peoples and cultures, while respecting the freedom of individuals and communities, including spiritual communities. The immense multitude of people of every origin is called to give glory to God. For, as Saint Ephraem says, "You have no need to communicate to us the treasures which you give us. You need only one thing: that we open our hearts to carry your good things, by surrendering our will and listening to you with our ears. All your works shine with the wreaths which the wisdom of your mouth made for them when you said: ‘All this is very good’" (Diathermane, 2, 5-7).
Like Paul, the disciples of Christ face a great challenge: they are to transmit the Good News by expressing it in a manner suited to each culture, without losing its content or altering its meaning. Do not be afraid to bear witness to this joyful news among your brothers and sisters, by your word and by your whole life: God loves everyone and calls them to be one family in love, for they are all brothers and sisters!
4. This joyful news should inspire all Christ’s disciples to seek ardently the paths of unity. By making their own the Lord’s prayer "may they all be one", they will bear witness in an ever more genuine and credible way. I truly rejoice at the fraternal relations which already exist between the members of the Christian Churches of your countries, and I encourage you to develop them in truth and with care, in communion with your Patriarchs and Bishops. At the dawn of the new millennium Christ is calling us all to come closer to one another in the charity which forms our unity. Be proud of the great liturgical and spiritual traditions of your Churches of the East! They are part of the heritage of the one Church of Christ and are bridges between people of different persuasions. Since the beginnings of Christianity, your land experienced a flourishing Christian life. In spiritual descent from Ignatius of Antioch, Ephraem, Simeon and John Damascene, the names of many Fathers, monks, hermits and so many other saints who are the glory of your Church are still in the living memory of the universal Church. By your attachment to the land of your fathers, by living your faith here with generosity, you too in turn today bear witness to the fruitfulness of the Gospel message which has been handed down from generation to generation.
With all your compatriots, without distinction of community, continue tirelessly your efforts to build a society marked by fraternity, justice and solidarity, where everyone’s human dignity and fundamental rights are recognized. In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together, with confidence and boldness, and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legitimate rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding. Among you, may the poor, the sick, the handicapped and all those hurt by life be always brothers and sisters who are respected and loved! The Gospel is a powerful element in the transformation of the world. By your witness of life, may people today find the response to their deepest aspirations and the foundations for social coexistence!
5. Christian families, the Church looks to you with confidence to pass on to your children the faith you have received over the centuries since the time of the Apostle Paul. By remaining united and open to all, by always defending the right to life from conception, be homes of light, in full conformity to God’s plan and the true requirements of the human person! Give significant time to prayer, to listening to God’s word and to Christian education; in them you will find effective support to tackle the difficulties of daily life and the great challenges of today’s world. Any faithful and consistent Christian life requires regular participation in the Sunday Eucharist. The Eucharist is a privileged gift where communion with God and others comes about and is proclaimed.
Brothers and sisters, do not tire of seeking the face of Christ who shows himself to you. In him you will find the secret of true freedom and joy of heart! May your hearts be filled with the desire for genuine fraternity with all! By placing yourselves enthusiastically at the service of others, you will find meaning in your life, because Christian identity is not defined by opposition to others but by the ability to go out of oneself towards one’s brothers and sisters. Openness to the world, with clarity and without fear, is part of the vocation of the Christian, conscious of his own identity and rooted in the religious heritage which the richness of the Church’s witness expresses.
6. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I shall give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them our of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:27-30).
These are the words of today’s Gospel, by which Jesus Christ himself shows us the admirable dynamism of evangelization. God, who in many and various ways spoke to our fathers by the prophets, finally spoke by his Son (cf. Heb 1:1-2). This Son, one in substance with the Father, is the Word of life. It is he who gives eternal life. He came so that we might have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10). At the gates of Damascus, when he met the Risen Christ, Saint Paul learned this truth and made it the content of his preaching. The wonderful reality of the Cross of Christ, upon which the work of the world’s Redemption was wrought, became present before him. Paul understood this reality and consecrated his whole life to it.
Brothers and sisters, let us lift our eyes to the Cross of Christ to find the source of our hope! In it we find a genuine path of life and happiness. Let us contemplate the loving face of God who gives us his Son to make us all "of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). Let us welcome him into our lives to inspire us and bring about the mystery of communion which embodies and makes manifest the very essence of the Church.
Your belonging to the Church should be a sign of hope for you and your brothers and sisters, which reminds us that 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.
May the Risen One, whose Resurrection all Christians celebrated together this year, grant us the gift of communion in charity! Amen.
Damscus - Sunday, 6 May 2001
Dear Brothers and Sisters from Damascus and all of Syria,
Before ending this Eucharistic Liturgy with a prayer to the Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Risen Christ, I wish to offer heartfelt thanks to all who have gathered here, around this altar, to offer the Lord our thanksgiving and to present to him our urgent petitions.
I know that all Christians in Syria have a great filial love and a profound veneration for the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, who is likewise respected by our Muslim brothers and sisters.
I deeply regret that my visit to you during these few short days does not permit me to make a pilgrimage of prayer in all the Churches dedicated to the Mother of God in this great and noble city of Damascus. I must limit myself to the two Patriarchal Cathedrals dedicated to the Dormition.
I would also have liked my pilgrimage in the footsteps of Saint Paul to have included a visit to some of the venerable Shrines of the Virgin Mother of God, such as those at nearby Seidnaya, or in Homs, Aleppo, Tartus and elsewhere. I have not forgotten that according to a pious tradition it was near Tartus that the Apostle Peter, on a journey from Jerusalem to Antioch along the Mediterranean coast, dedicated a chapel to the Virgin Mary, the first Marian shrine in Syria.
As you know, in a few days time, when I leave this city and your country, I shall continue in the footsteps of Saint Paul to Malta, where a celebrated icon of Our Lady of Damascus is piously preserved and venerated in the Greek Catholic Church in Valletta, the capital of the Island. Kneeling before that image, I will remember all of you. I promise to take to Our Lady your prayers and hopes, and I promise to ask her, as I do now, to intercede with her Divine Son for all of you and your families.
Sunday, 6 May 2001
Your Holiness,
Your Beatitudes,
Your Eminences,
My Brother Bishops,
1. My pilgrimage in the footsteps of Saint Paul, dear Brothers, brings me today to Syria, to Damascus, and it is a great joy for me to be among you. I thank you for your warm welcome and in particular I express my gratitude to His Beatitude Patriarch Gregory III for his kind words of welcome to his Patriarchal residence.
Every pilgrimage is an opportunity to return to the sources of our faith, to strengthen our love of Christ and the Church, and to enable us to set out again on the mission that Jesus has entrusted to us. Here, in this land which God has blessed over the centuries by the presence of eminent witnesses who, by their lives and writings, have figured in the tradition of the entire Church, sacred history can be read like an open book in the countryside, at the Biblical sites and at the Christian shrines. But this pilgrimage is also clearly meant to be a meeting with the men and women who live in this land, in particular with our brothers and sisters who share our faith in the one Lord, who himself lived in the Middle East and who revealed to us the face of the Father of all tenderness. Was it not in this land, in the city of Antioch which is one of the beacons of the East, that the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26), that is, people who confess that Christ is the Saviour, the Messiah, and who are members of his Body? It is therefore with deep joy that I greet you with the words of Jesus after his Resurrection: "Peace be with you!" (Jn 20:19).
2. The Catholic Church in Syria exists in a situation of great diversity, with the simultaneous presence of several Churches sui iuris each representing one of the many great and rich traditions of the Christian East. Your communities and your faithful have been patiently opening up to one another, progressively overcoming a long-standing isolation due to the vicissitudes of history. While remaining firmly rooted in your own ecclesial heritage and even reasserting it, you have learned to combine efforts. The Assembly of the Catholic Hierarchy in Syria, and more broadly the Council of Patriarchs of the Middle East, symbolize this indispensable coordination. I invite you, despite the difficulties which may arise, to continue this coordination, to extend it and intensify it, in order to provide a better pastoral service to the faithful entrusted to you and a real sharing of the spiritual treasures of your respective traditions. If it is true that communion is in fact first a gift of God to his Church, it is equally certain that on our part there should be a corresponding discernment, respect, mutual esteem and patience. These different elements ensure that diversity contributes to unity. They bear witness to the catholicity of the Church, and they especially glorify the name of God and serve the proclamation of the Gospel by making the word of brothers united in faith and love ever more credible.
This communion at the various levels of your different Churches takes nothing away from the episcopal communion which exists within your respective Synods. Rather, it is an expression which must constantly be put into practice and given fresh impetus.
3. Considering the very concrete circumstances of your communities, I invite you to look again to Christ and to base your entire lives on him. By returning to him, by drawing every day from the living fountain of his word and Sacraments, the Church finds the strength which gives her life and supports her in her witness. Paul wrote to the Galatians: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (2:20). His example helps us to understand ever more fully the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives: "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). Christ is with us; his is a consoling presence which gives us peace and reassurance on our journey. It is a demanding presence, which obliges us not to keep for ourselves the treasure we have received: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16).
Brothers, we shall find in him the path that leads to a strong spiritual life, a path of holiness, to be offered to all the baptized of our communities. Faithful in joyfully celebrating the Eucharist which constitutes and gathers the Christian community ever since the Lord’s Resurrection, the faithful find in it nourishment for their faith. As they gather round the table of the word and the Bread of Life, they overcome the distractions of everyday life and find strength. They become more aware of their identity as God’s children, and they consolidate this identity in order to be true witnesses in the Church and in the world. By being rooted in prayer, and through attentive listening to the word and love of the liturgy, we become more receptive to the call of the Holy Spirit, who tells us to go forth, proclaim courageously the Gospel of peace (Eph 6:15) and bear witness to it in the family, culture and society. Saint Paul, overcome by the grace of Christ’s call, bore greater witness than anyone else to the newness of Christianity and taught it thoroughly. He let himself be led into an entirely new way of living, completely dedicated to Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel.
4. I wish to express once again my admiration for the harmony which exists among the Christians of Syria. The presence of His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV is an eloquent sign of this. Your Beatitude, I was touched by your recent declarations on the depth of fraternal communion that exists among the Christian Churches in this country, a communion which you intend to strengthen further. I take this opportunity to extend fraternal greetings to His Beatitude Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, whom I have called to Rome as a worthy representative of the entire Catholic East. I also greet His Beatitude the Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignace Pierre VIII, as well as the other Patriarchs, Cardinals and Bishops present. The true understanding which exists among the Patriarchs, Bishops and dignitaries of the Churches and Ecclesial Communities is a beautiful testimony to Christian love in a country where the majority of the citizens are Muslim in religion.
We remember that it was in fact in Syria that the Church of Christ discovered her truly catholic character and took on her universal mission. The Apostles Peter and Paul, each according to the grace received, worked here to gather together the one family of Christ, welcoming believers coming from different cultures and nations. It is with satisfaction that we witness the development of cooperation between the Churches and Ecclesial Communities. This cannot fail to contribute to reconciliation and the pursuit of unity. May this coming together help you to bear ever more credible witness to Jesus Christ, who died and rose in order "to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (Jn 11:52). May this cooperation help to make the Church of Christ more beautiful and authentic in the eyes of the followers of other religions.
For their part, the faithful deeply appreciate the opportunities to take part in common ecumenical prayer. This openness should be further strengthened and initiatives promoted in which the Churches can cooperate in all areas.
Divisions among Christians hinder the spread the Gospel. What is more "ecumenism is not only an internal question of the Christian Communities. It is a matter of the love which God has in Jesus Christ for all humanity; to stand in the way of this love is an offence against him and against his plan to gather all people in Christ" (Ut Unum Sint, 99). Having lived so close to Muslim believers over the centuries, the Christians of Syria immediately understand the close connection between the unity of the community and the witness which derives from fraternal communion.
In this area too, I encourage you to engage in genuine dialogue in daily life, a dialogue marked by mutual respect and hospitality. Did not Abraham and Sara, according to a poetic tradition recounted by Saint Ephraem the Syrian, receive the gift of the child of the promise because they had eaten what was left over from the hospitable meal which they had offered to the three Angels?
5. Pastors are certainly not short of preoccupations. The most insistent, without a doubt, is the emigration of so many Christian families, and many young people. They all hope to find a more comfortable future elsewhere. I am sure that each of you has often asked the anguished question: What can I do? You can do many things. First, you can make your contribution to making your country economically prosperous. You can help to make it a country in which every citizen has the same rights and duties before the law, where everyone is concerned with living in fairness and peace both inside its borders and with all the neighbouring countries. Contributing to increasing confidence in your country’s future is one of the greatest services the Church can make to society. Another practical step is to encourage Christians to promote solidarity by sharing your people’s difficulties and sufferings. Your influence on young people is great: speak to their generous hearts by explaining, correcting and encouraging, and especially by showing through your own personal example that the Christian values of mind and heart are better able to make people happy than any material possessions. Give them a human and Christian ideal, and help them to discover that, as the author of the Letter to Diognetus said, "the place that God has assigned to them is so noble that they are not allowed to desert it" (VI, 10).
In this spirit, interreligious dialogue and mutual cooperation, particularly between Christians and Muslims, is an important contribution to peace and understanding between people and communities. It should also lead to common witness to promote full recognition of the dignity of the human person.
6. Dearly beloved brothers in Christ! I cannot end these words of fraternal comfort in any better way than by making my own the recommendations of Saint Paul to the Elders of the Church of Ephesus: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).
May the same Lord give you the strength to do this, through the Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and son of man, to the glory of God our Father! I entrust you to the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos to whom the liturgy never ceases to sing, to her who is "our sister filled with prudence ... the treasure of our happiness" (Saint Ephraem the Syrian, Opera, II, 318) and who from the Upper Room watches over the Church with maternal care.
6. Meeting with the Muslim leaders - Omayyad Great Mosque, Damascus
Domenica, 6 maggio 2001
Dear Muslim Friends,
As-salámu 'aláikum!
I give heartfelt praise to Almighty God for the grace of this meeting. I am most grateful for your warm welcome, in the tradition of hospitality so cherished by the people of this region. I thank especially the Minister of the Waqf and the Grand Mufti for their gracious greetings, which put into words the great yearning for peace which fills the hearts of all people of good will. My Jubilee Pilgrimage has been marked by important meetings with Muslim leaders in Cairo and Jerusalem, and now I am deeply moved to be your guest here in the great Umayyad Mosque, so rich in religious history. Your land is dear to Christians: here our religion has known vital moments of its growth and doctrinal development, and here are found Christian communities which have lived in peace and harmony with their Muslim neighbours for many centuries.
We are meeting close to what both Christians and Muslims regard as the tomb of John the Baptist, known as Yahya in the Muslim tradition. The son of Zechariah is a figure of prime importance in the history of Christianity, for he was the Precursor who prepared the way for Christ. John’s life, wholly dedicated to God, was crowned by martyrdom. May his witness enlighten all who venerate his memory here, so that they – and we too – may understand that life’s great task is to seek God’s truth and justice.
The fact that we are meeting in this renowned place of prayer reminds us that man is a spiritual being, called to acknowledge and respect the absolute priority of God in all things. Christians and Muslims agree that the encounter with God in prayer is the necessary nourishment of our souls, without which our hearts wither and our will no longer strives for good but succumbs to evil.
3. Both Muslims and Christians prize their places of prayer, as oases where they meet the All Merciful God on the journey to eternal life, and where they meet their brothers and sisters in the bond of religion. When, on the occasion of weddings or funerals or other celebrations, Christians and Muslims remain in silent respect at the other’s prayer, they bear witness to what unites them, without disguising or denying the things that separate.
It is in mosques and churches that the Muslim and Christian communities shape their religious identity, and it is there that the young receive a significant part of their religious education. What sense of identity is instilled in young Christians and young Muslims in our churches and mosques? It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict. It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction.
4. I truly hope that our meeting today in the Umayyad Mosque will signal our determination to advance interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. This dialogue has gained momentum in recent decades; and today we can be grateful for the road we have travelled together so far. At the highest level, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue represents the Catholic Church in this task. For more than thirty years the Council has sent a message to Muslims on the occasion of Îd al-Fitr at the close of Ramadan, and I am very happy that this gesture has been welcomed by many Muslims as a sign of growing friendship between us. In recent years the Council has established a liaison committee with international Islamic Organizations, and also with al-Azhar in Egypt, which I had the pleasure of visiting last year.
It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together, in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each others’ religious beliefs. Better mutual understanding will surely lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family.
Interreligious dialogue is most effective when it springs from the experience of “living with each other” from day to day within the same community and culture. In Syria, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and a rich dialogue of life has gone on unceasingly. Every individual and every family knows moments of harmony, and other moments when dialogue has broken down. The positive experiences must strengthen our communities in the hope of peace; and the negative experiences should not be allowed to undermine that hope. For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness. Jesus teaches us that we must pardon others’ offences if God is to pardon us our sins (cf. Mt 6:14).
As members of the one human family and as believers, we have obligations to the common good, to justice and to solidarity. Interreligious dialogue will lead to many forms of cooperation, especially in responding to the duty to care for the poor and the weak. These are the signs that our worship of God is genuine.
5. As we make our way through life towards our heavenly destiny, Christians feel the company of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and Islam too pays tribute to Mary and hails her as “chosen above the women of the world” (Quran, III:42). The Virgin of Nazareth, the Lady of Saydnâya, has taught us that God protects the humble and “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Lk 1:51). May the hearts of Christians and Muslims turn to one another with feelings of brotherhood and friendship, so that the Almighty may bless us with the peace which heaven alone can give. To the One, Merciful God be praise and glory for ever. Amen.

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