On the Road to Damascus

An eyewitness account of the Pope’s jubilee pilgrimage to Syria.

text by Msgr. Robert L. Stern
photographs by L’Osservatore Romano

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On Friday, 4 May, according to the Roman lectionary, the first reading at Mass was the passage from The Acts of the Apostles about St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It was a happy coincidence that I was taking the road to Damascus from Beirut that very morning.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, Gregorios III, had invited CNEWA’s Associate Secretary General, Msgr. Denis J. Madden; CNEWA’s Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, Issam Bishara; and me to be his personal guests for the duration of Pope John Paul’s pilgrimage visit to Syria.


The independence of the Syrian Arab Republic dates from 17 April 1946. However, it proudly cherishes its ancient patrimony as a cradle of civilization and of two great monotheistic religions.

Syria was sometimes the seat of empire, sometimes a part of empire. About 4,500 years ago a great Semitic empire centered in northern Syria extended from the Red Sea to what is now modern Turkey and east to Mesopotamia. Two thousand five hundred years later, at Jesu’s birth, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” the entire Mediterranean world was under Rome.

Syria came under Muslim rule in 636. The ancient city of Damascus became the capital of the Uma yyad Caliphate, the Muslim empire that extended from Spain to India, from 661 to 750.

For four hundred years before World War I, Syria and all the Near East was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the war, until its independence, Syria was governed by France with a mandate from the League of Nations.

Today Syria is a rapidly developing country of 16,110,000 people, most of whom are Muslim. About 10 percent of the population is Christian, including 309,000 members of various Catholic churches. Although the president must be Muslim, Syria is a secular state. The Christian churches freely maintain their institutions and services to their people and, in some ways, e.g., tax exemptions, are favored by the government.

Welcome ceremony

Thousands of young police officers lined both sides of the road to the Damascus International Airport on the afternoon of Sunday, 5 May. When the Alitalia flight carrying the Pope and his modest entourage landed, the President of Syria, Dr. Bashar Assad, the ministers of his government and all the patriarchs and bishops of Syria were on hand to greet and welcome the Holy Father.

Syrian and papal flags were flying, an honor guard stood at attention and the band was playing as the tall young President warmly greeted the stooped and frail visitor who slowly stepped onto Syrian soil, the first pope ever to visit Syria – although eight earlier popes were Syrian-born.

The speech of President Assad was laced with many warm welcomes, as is the Arab way, and references to Syris rich Christian and Muslim heritage. However, it had some dissonant words as well. He not only spoke about those who are afflicting the Palestinian people and occupying Arab lands – i.e. Israel, although he didn’t mention the name – but also accused them of opposing “the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ.”

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Tags: Syria Pilgrimage/pilgrims Melkite Greek Catholic Church Pope John Paul II Damascus