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Syrian president meets with Pope

Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Pope John Paul II in a Vatican audience yesterday on a trip intended to bolster international involvement in the Middle East peace process.

Assad met with the pope privately for 10 minutes, presenting him with an ancient Quran, Islam's holy book. The Syrian president then held talks with the Vatican's top diplomatic officials.

In a brief statement, the Vatican reiterated its position that peace in the Middle East, and ``in particular the Holy Land,'' must be achieved on the basis of United Nations resolutions.

The Vatican has long championed Palestinian rights, while stressing the need to protect Israel's security needs.

The visit was a follow-up to John Paul's historic trip to Damascus last May.

When the pope visited Syria in May, Assad likened Israelis to betrayers of Jesus, drawing condemnation from Israel and the United States. Israeli Ambassador Ehud Gol said Tuesday that Assad's trip to Italy calls attention to ``three important aspects of the Syrian reality: terrorism, anti-Semitism and the violation of human rights.''