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  Pope John Paul II Lands in Egypt

By Brian Murphy
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2000; 8:58 a.m. EST

CAIRO, Egypt –– Pope John Paul II praised Egypt as a cradle of learning, religion and unity as he started a pilgrimage today to retrace some epic passages from the Bible.

The trip is also an opportunity to promote closer dialogue with Muslims and to try to overcome old rifts with Orthodox Christians.

"Peace be upon you," John Paul said in Arabic as he opened a nationally televised address with a traditional Muslim greeting.

John Paul, dressed in white robes embroidered in gold, had earlier emerged from his plane under cloudy skies and slowly made his way down red-carpeted steps to the tarmac at Cairo's international airport.

President Hosni Mubarak greeted John Paul, the first Roman Catholic pope to visit Egypt, with a handshake at the foot of the stairs. The reception party included Muslim and Christian religious leaders from across the region. Crowds of ordinary Egyptians looked on.

A band played the processional from Verdi's "Aida," an opera associated with Egypt, as Mubarak escorted the pope, leaning on a walking stick, to the waving flags of Egypt and the Vatican. Four small children brought the pope a tray of Egyptian soil, which he kissed.

The pope and Mubarak held a private meeting in an airport reception room, then made brief remarks on television.

Mubarak welcomed the pope to "a land that prides itself for being the cradle of civilization and a hospitable safe haven for all messengers of God."

"Today the Egyptian people stand together, united by their submission to the will of God and inspired by the spirit of both Christianity and Islam," Mubarak said in English, denouncing all forms of discrimination.

"For many years I have been looking forward to celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ by visiting and praying at the places specially linked to God's intervention in history," the pope said in English. "Thank you, Mr. President for making it possible for me to come here and go to where God revealed his name to Moses and gave his law as a sign of his great mercy and kindness to us, his creatures."

The pope praised Mubarak's efforts to bring about peace between Arabs and Israelis.

John Paul, making his first visit to Egypt and the 90th foreign trip of his 22-year papacy, insists his agenda is "purely religious, not political." But all gestures by the 79-year-old pontiff have the potential to reverberate through the volatile mix of beliefs across the Middle East.

In Cairo, the pope plans a Mass. He also will meet with Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III and Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, one of the most influential Muslim clerics in Egypt. Coptic Christians are the largest religious minority in predominantly Muslim Egypt, making up an estimated 10 percent of the 64 million population.

Clashes in January between Muslims and Copts in southern Egypt left 23 people dead. The pope could use his influence to press for reconciliation.

Tantawi is also an important catalyst for dialogue between Muslims and Roman Catholics. As chief cleric of Al-Azhar University, known as a venerable seat of learning throughout the Muslim world, Tantawi carries influence that stretches far outside Egypt's borders.

The stalled Middle East peace process could also get an indirect boost from the pope's presence in mostly Muslim Egypt, said Samir Morcos, associate general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches.

"This could help bring more support for Arabs in the process," he said. "This could help move things along."

The pope angered Israeli officials earlier this month by describing Israel's control of Jerusalem as "morally and legally unacceptable."

On Saturday, the pope is scheduled to travel to the St. Catherine monastery, a nearly 1,500-year-old Greek Orthodox outpost in the shadow of Mount Sinai, where tradition says God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments.

The desert range, about 150 miles southeast of Cairo, is the first of the major biblical sites on the pope's itinerary for his millennium pilgrimage. Next month, he plans to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The monastery visit also presents the pope with another chance to further his desire to close the nearly 1,000-year split between the Vatican and Orthodox churches, which separated following disputes over papal authority.

Greek and Russian Orthodox leaders have been most hostile to any rapprochement. The Vatican last year suspended discussions on a possible papal visit to biblical sites in Greece after Orthodox clerics sharply criticized the idea.

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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