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Mosque visit crowns Pope's tour

The Pope's visit to the Umayyad mosque in the Syrian capital Damascus was an historic highlight on his three-nation tour retracing the steps of Saint Paul.

Pope John Paul II began the day with an open-air mass for some 35,000 people at the city's Abbasid stadium. As he entered the building on Sunday he was carried along by enthusiastic cheers from tens of thousands of people. They waved Vatican and Syrian flags and raised banners of welcome.

Speaking in French, he called on Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together for peace and understanding, driving home his theme of harmony among faiths.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians are hoping the Pope's visit will highlight the fact that they are a significant minority in this largely Muslim country, and that Christianity has deep roots here. There was also just plain excitement at seeing a world-famous leader.

"It was great... that minute he walked in, everybody was clapping, we were so happy. We had been trying to get tickets for the last five days... It was very nice to see him," said one worshipper.

Islamic official Farouq Akbik said it was a ground-breaking moment in Christian-Muslim relations.

"It is important because it is high time the barriers of ignorance, of mistrust be pulled down. Once the Christians see the Pope is being warmly welcomed at the Umayyad mosque, then people will ask, what is this Islam, what is this religion? What is being presented to us is something very negative."