VATICAN CITY, MAY 7, 2001 (VIS) - At 7:30 this morning the Holy Father celebrated Mass in
private in the apostolic nunciature in Damascus. At 9:30 he left for a visit to the ancient and very small Church of St. Paul at the St. Paul Memorial of Damascus and, following this, he departed for the 65-kilometer ride to the Greek Orthodox Church of Quneitra, a city on the Golan Heights. 
The St. Paul Memorial was a gift by Pope Paul VI to the Christians of Damascus. It comprises a grotto, where tradition says Saul of Tarsus fell from his horse and was converted, a guest house and an ambulatory, all of which are entrusted to the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. Nearby is the Chapel of St. Ananias, first bishop of Damascus, allegedly built on the site of his home where he baptized Saul. The Church of the St. Paul Memorial, dedicated to the conversion of Paul, was consecrated in 1971. The Holy Father spoke briefly to the religious and lay people present for his visit and had special greetings for the Franciscans entrusted with the care of the memorial and the adjacent church. 
The Pope's visit to Quneitra took place shortly after 11 a.m. Quneitra, which in arabic means "little archway," is a city on the Golan Heights, 35 kilometers from the Israeli border. Quneitra was occupied by the Israeli forces during the 1967 "six-day war" and then evacuated under a United Nations-sponsored accord. Before their withdrawal, Israeli forces destroyed all buildings which had not already been destroyed and the city today purposely remains as it was when turned over to U.N. forces. 
Today the city is under control of an Austrian contingent. 
In the greatly damaged Greek-Orthodox Church, the Holy Father prayed for peace in the Middle East.
Following a period of recollection and the reading of the prayer for peace which he personally composed, John Paul II blessed and watered an olive tree which will be planted in the Quneitra
Friendship Garden, three kilometers from the city. He was warmly welcomed by descendants of the original residents of Quneitra and received gifts from them and from local children. 
In his prayer, recited in the original English, the Pope prayed for the peoples of the Middle East, the civil leaders of the region, for all who believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the followers of all
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be sons of God," began the Pope. "From this place, so disfigured by war, I wish to raise my heart and voice in prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the world. Genuine peace is a gift from God. Our openness to that gift requires a conversion of heart and a conscience obedient to His Law."
 The prayer continued, saying in part:
 "Lord, ... we pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East. Help them, to break down the walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity."
"We pray for the civil leaders of this region, that they may strive to satisfy their peoples' rightful aspirations, and educate the young in ways of justice and peace. Inspire in them to work generously for the common good, to respect the inalienable dignity of every person and the fundamental rights which have their origin in the image and likeness of the Creator impressed upon each and every human being."  
"Merciful Father, may all believers find the courage to forgive one another, so that the wounds of the past may be healed and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present." 
At the end of his prayer, the Pope said three times "Salam!", that is, "peace." He also extended "a word of appreciation to the international force stationed here. Your presence is a sign of the international community's determination to be of assistance in bringing closer the day of harmony between the peoples, cultures and religions of the area." 
He then added: "Having been told of the sad news of the conflict and death which even today come from Gaza, our prayer becomes ever more intense."