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Fragile Pope setting out on delicate mission

Pope John Paul leaves in fragile health today for a delicate mission of religious and political peace that will take him from Orthodox Greece to Muslim Syria and Roman Catholic Malta.

His six days in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions is the Holy Father's first overseas trip of the year, and his stop in Syria takes him to the Middle East for the first time since the region's peace process began unravelling.

Speaking at his general audience on Wednesday, the Pope asked the faithful to pray for the success of the trip, which he said was "very significant" to him.

He said he hoped the stop in Greece would help relations with Orthodox Christians and that his visit to Syria would help those with the Muslim world.

The official purpose of the visit, his 93rd outside Italy, is to retrace the steps of St. Paul. Today he travels to Greece for a visit which Vatican sources have said was kept intentionally short for security and political reasons. After much consternation, the Orthodox Church in Greece agreed to go along with a government invitation for the visit, the first by a pontiff since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.

In the run-up to the visit, for which Athens will lay on unprecedented security, Orthodox militants have called the Pope everything from "a two-horned heretic" to "a devil in disguise."