John Paul II, respectfully removing his shoes, today in 2001 became the first pope to enter a mosque when he toured a 1,300-year-old Islamic house of worship and urged joint forgiveness by Christians and Muslims, whose faiths have warred for centuries over territory and spiritual primacy.
The pope’s visit to the Umayyad mosque served as a recognition that the two religions share some ideas and prophets, even as they differ on theological issues such as the divinity of Christ and the nature of the Koran.
John Paul, 80, and Syria’s top Muslim cleric, Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro, who is in his late eighties, both used canes as they entered the mosque in Damascus’s walled Old City. The pope stopped for a minute of contemplation before a tomb reputedly housing the head of John the Baptist. In deference to Muslim sensitivities, he said no formal prayer inside the worship area.
The pope shook hands with Kuftaro in the building’s courtyard, which is ringed by elaborate mosaics depicting heaven and has a minaret where some Muslims believe Jesus will make his second coming.
“For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness,” the pope said before dozens of Syrian Christian and Islamic leaders and scholars.
No pope had ever stepped into a mosque. During a trip to Jerusalem last year, John Paul did not enter the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest Islamic shrine, when he visited the Noble Sanctuary.
The Umayyad mosque was built in 705 on a site that was once used for pagan sacrifices in honor of the Roman god Jupiter; it later became a Christian basilica. At the peak of the Umayyad caliph’s rule from Damascus, it was converted to a mosque, with relics of John the Baptist, known to Muslims as the prophet Yahya, given a central place. A connected courtyard also contains the tomb of Saladin, the Muslim warrior who reconquered Jerusalem from Catholic crusaders.
“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,” the pope said. “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.”