VATICAN CITY, MAY 2, 2001 (VIS) - At the end of today's general audience, which began at 10 a.m. in St. Peter's Square in the presence of 23,000 people, Pope John Paul spoke of his forthcoming pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta, and asked the faithful to accompany him in prayer "on this trip which is so meaningful to me."

Pope John Paul leaves the morning of May 4 for Greece. He will travel to Syria on May 5 and will go to Malta on the 8th for the final leg of his pilgrimage.

At today's audience the Pope said he was "fulfilling a desire, expressed within the perspective of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, to go personally to pray where God's initiative for the salvation of man was concretely expressed. After having been on the Sinai, where God revealed Himself to Moses, and in the Holy Land, I am now about to leave for several cities linked in special ways to St. Paul. My pilgrimage in the footsteps of the great apostle will be a return to the roots of the Church."

The Holy Father said his trip would take him to Athens, "in whose areopago St. Paul gave a very illuminating speech about the encounter of the Gospel message with an important culture like that of Greece. I will then proceed to Damascus, the place which evokes the conversion of Saul, and lastly, Malta where the apostle of the people was shipwrecked as he was being brought to Rome as a prisoner."

In asking for prayers for his trip, John Paul II said: "May this be a happy occasion to increase understanding with our Orthodox brothers, favoring further advances on the path to the full unity of Christians. I also hope that my visit to Syria and, in particular, the great mosque of Damascus will help to reinforce interreligious dialogue with the followers of Islam."