VATICAN CITY, MAY 8, 2001 (VIS) - The Holy Father this morning celebrated Mass privately at the apostolic nunciature and at 10:15 left for the Damascus Airport, where he was greeted by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, political, religious and civil authorities and the diplomatic corps. He addressed those assembled to see him off, as he departs for Malta and the final leg of his 93rd foreign apostolic trip. 
"As I take my leave of the ancient land of Syria," he said, "I am filled with a sense of gratitude. I give thanks above all to Almighty God for enabling me to continue my Jubilee pilgrimage of faith on the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. I am grateful to St. Paul who has been my traveling companion at every step of the way."
 John Paul II also expressed gratitude to Syria's government and people and to all religious and civil authorities who made his pilgrimage possible. "The Syrian people are renowned for their hospitality and during these days they have made a pilgrim feel at home. I shall not forget this kindness." He underscored how he "shall cherish the memory of my visit to the Omayyad Mosque." 
"My pilgrim prayer," stated the Holy Father, "is that Syria will move confidently and serenely into a new and promising future, and that your country will flourish in an era of well-being and tranquility
for its people. 
"Syria," the Pope concluded, "is a vital presence in the life of this whole region, whose peoples have long suffered the tragedy of war and conflict. But for the door of peace to open, fundamental issues
of truth and justice, of rights and responsibilities must be resolved. The world looks to the Middle East with hope and concern, expectantly awaiting every sign of constructive dialogue. Many serious obstacles remain, yet the first step towards peace must be a steadfast conviction that a solution is possible within the parameters of international law and the resolutions of the United Nations. I appeal once more to all the peoples involved, and to their political leaders, to recognize that
confrontation has failed and will always fail. Only a just peace can bring the conditions needed for the economic, cultural and social development to which the peoples of the region have a right." 
In off-the-cuff remarks made at the foot of the plane, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad shook the Pope's hand at length and told him: "If Your Holiness ever wants anything from Syria, you only have to let me know." The Pope thanked him for the warm welcome to Syria, and the president responded: "I know you must be tired from this trip but I thank you for coming." To which John Paul II replied: "You must be the youngest president I have ever met. Maybe I am the oldest and you are the youngest."