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Mission Of Reconciliation

Pope John Paul II has been on the road again in recent days, renewing his heartfelt effort to heal historic rifts between the Roman Catholic Church and other religions. This cause, which last year took John Paul to Israel, has become a central mission of his papacy, and will form one of his most important legacies to his church and the world.

But the current journey to Greece, Syria and Malta has been marred by the crude anti-Jewish statements of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and an attack on Israel by Syria's Muslim leader. Uncharacteristically, the pope failed to offer a strong direct response to these expressions of intolerance, although he spoke in general of the need for religious reconciliation and peace in the Middle East.

Slowed by age and ill health, John Paul has retraced the footsteps of the Apostle Paul in a trip meant to broaden his embrace of other religions. John Paul became the first pope to visit Greece since the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches split nearly 1,000 years ago. There he offered "deep regret" for Roman Catholic misdeeds against the Orthodox faith. The pope's visit was highly controversial among the Greek Orthodox clergy, who saw it as an attempt to convert their faithful, and no church officials met him at the airport. But his visit with Archbishop Christodoulos was a warm one, and by the end the Greek prelate had agreed to recite the Lord's Prayer with the pope.

In Syria, John Paul became the first pope in history to enter a mosque, removing his shoes and pausing to contemplate a tomb that Muslims believe holds the head of John the Baptist.

Unfortunately, Mr. Assad welcomed the pope to Syria with a diatribe that reinforced Mr. Assad's growing reputation for irresponsible leadership. Among other things, he accused Jews of betraying Christ and urged Christians and Muslims around the world to make common cause against the Jews. In a speech at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the grand mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, appealed to the pope to pressure Israel to curb its "atrocious aggression."

Pope John Paul, nearly 81 and so frail that at times an aide had to read his words for him, did not directly address these sentiments or the Syrian effort to take political advantage of his presence. In the mosque he said that young people should be taught respect for other religions. Later he called for Christians, Muslims and Jews to work together.

Yesterday the pope visited Quneitra, a city in the Golan Heights that Syria chose for political reasons. It maintains that the city was razed by Israel in 1974 before being returned to Syria, which Israel disputes. By scheduling an event at the site, Vatican planners created another opportunity for Mr. Assad to use the visit to stir passions against Israel.

The pope's failing health added poignancy to his mission of recognizing the church's past mistakes and establishing a basis for respectful relations with other faiths. He has frequently condemned Catholic persecution of Jews, and in 1986 became the first pope to set foot in a synagogue. Last year he made a dramatic call for a church- wide "purification of memory," apologizing for the Inquisition, support of the Crusades and the forced conversion of native peoples.

In Syria the pope did not apologize to Muslims, but he asked Catholics and Muslims to forgive each other and seek forgiveness from God. It is unfortunate that his hosts undermined the occasion with bigotry.

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