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Despite major obstacles, Pope John Paul II has made history during his pilgrimage to Athens and Damascus, with a series of symbolic gestures and speeches which forge new links with both Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

On Sunday, May 6, in Damascus, Pope John Paul became the first pontiff to enter a mosque when he visited the Umayyad Mosque in the company of Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro of Syria. The Pope urged forgiveness between Christians and Muslims, but, out of deference to Muslim sensitivities, no formal prayer was said.

On Friday, May 4, John Paul made the first visit to Greece by a pope in 1291 years. In recent weeks, plans for his visit had been strongly criticized by Greek Orthodox clergy and laity, but in Athens Pope John Paul defused at least some of the hostility by asking God to forgive Roman Catholics for sins committed against Orthodox Christians over the past 1,000 years.

Pope John Paul, who will celebrate his 81st birthday on May 18, is following in the "steps of St Paul" as he visits Athens, Damascus and Malta on his six-day pilgrimage. He returns to Rome today.

The Pope was invited to visit Greece by the country's president, Costis Stephanopoulos, and not by the Church of Greece, to which most of the country's 10.6 million citizens belong. When John Paul arrived at Athens airport on May 4 he was welcomed by government officials, and by bishops from Greece's Catholic minority—but no Orthodox bishop was there to greet him.

The Roman Catholic leader, accompanied by four cardinals, went immediately to the presidential residence in Athens and then made a "courtesy visit" to 61-year-old Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece, head of the Church of Greece. Several leading metropolitans of the Greek church were ...

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