May 11: Pope John Paul II created history by setting foot in the Omayyad mosque in Damascus on his historic visit to Syria recently. He is the first Pope in Christianity’s 2000 year history to enter a mosque.
And it isn’t just some ordinary mosque that the Pope stepped into, reports the Hindu newspaper. The site of the Omayyad mosque has a religious history predating Christianity, and goes back more than 3000 years.
It was initially a place of worship dedicated to the Semitic god Hadad and later became a temple of the Roman god, Jupiter. Following the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the temple was converted to a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
Although Muslim Arabs invaded Damascus in 636 AD, it was finally converted into a mosque in the early years of the 8th century by the Muslim ruler al-Wajid.
The Pope’s visit sidestepped some age-old controversies which ring a familiar bell here in India. Quite like the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir controversy, where efforts are on to undo history, the Omayyad mosque, too, is claimed by both Muslims and Christians.
In fact, the Pope’s visit sparked off concerns among some Syrians who wondered if the Pope was trying to claim the site back for Christianity.
That is why, to avoid the slightest possibility of ruffling feathers, a planned joint Muslim-Christian prayer at the mosque was cancelled for fear of wounding Muslim sensitivities.
Instead, the Pope prayed for peace in a region plagued by violence and wars. Addressing people at the soccer stadium, the Pope said, “In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work to bring about without delay the day when the legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding.”
Underlining his words is a story in the day’s newspaper. The photograph shows the bullet-ridden body of four-month old Imam, a Palestinian infant who lay dead in a hospital in the Gaza strip. She fell victim to the firing of Israeli troops on Monday.
In retaliation, the bodies of two 14-year-old Israeli boys were found by the Israeli authorities. They had been beaten to death by a Palestinian group to avenge the baby’s death.
It seems it will take a lot more than prayers to bring peace to the children of this troubled land.