• SYRIA \ Mar 08, 2001
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    Pope to enter mosque in Syria
Pope to enter mosque in Syria DAMASCUS, Syria -- Pope John Paul II is expected to be the first pope to enter a mosque when he visits Syria in May, an archbishop said.
Syrian Archbishop Isidore Battikha said the Pope will enter the historic Omayyad Mosque -- where legend says the head of St. John the Baptist is buried.
A joint Christian-Muslim prayer is planned afterwards outside the mosque, the archbishop said.
Christians who believe St. John's head is kept in a casket entombed in the mosque regularly visit the popular Muslim site.
The grave of Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who rallied fellow Muslims against crusading Christians, lies next door to the mosque.
During a trip to Jerusalem last year, John Paul did not enter the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest Islamic shrine, when he visited the Haram as-Sharif complex.
The Omayyad Mosque stands on ground that has been considered holy since at least the ninth century B.C., when Aramaeans built a temple to their god Hadad.
When the Romans ruled what is now Syria, the site was used as Jupiter's temple.
After the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, it became a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Islam reached Syria in 636 and by the eighth century, rulers of the Omayyad dynasty had declared they would make it the world's greatest mosque.
Pope John Paul, who has been visiting Biblical sites in recent years, is expected in Syria in early May on a tour that will include the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Last year, the pope visited Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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