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Ahead of pope's visit, believers point to sites associated with St. Paul

Posted: Friday, May 04, 2001

KAWKAB, Syria (AP) -- Father Matta Rizk stood outside his hilltop chapel Tuesday, pointing to the yellowing green hills dotted with olive trees before him to the south. To the north, Damascus was barely visible through the late morning haze.

''It happened somewhere here, but no one knows the exact spot,'' he said.

''It'' is the vision of Jesus experienced some 2,000 years ago by St. Paul the Apostle on the road to Damascus.

Pope John Paul II's visit to Syria, which starts Saturday, was inspired by St. Paul. Following in the saint's steps isn't easy these days, as time and progress have erased memories, but the faithful point to a few spots as sacred.

John Paul has no plans to come to the area associated with St. Paul's vision because of his poor health and the busy schedule of his four-day stay in Syria, according to Rizk. Rizk's church is at Kawkab, some 12.5 miles south of Damascus.

Paul, then a Christian-hating Jew named Saul, was on his way to Damascus to try to put down the new religion. The vision of Jesus both blinded and converted Paul, according to Christian belief, giving the newly born faith a man who spent a lifetime tirelessly preaching Christianity throughout the then all-powerful Roman Empire. Paul is believed to have been beheaded in Rome around 67 A.D.

Rizk's chapel, a modern structure built in 1965 with money donated by the Russian Orthodox church, is named after St. Paul, as is the Greek Orthodox monastery to which the Lebanese-educated monk belongs.

The 33-year-old Orthodox monk from Damascus shares something with the 80-year-old, Polish-born Roman pontiff. Both look to Paul as a model.

''It's Paul's love for Jesus that made me become a monk,'' Rizk said.

Back in Damascus, Straight Street is the spot where, following his vision, Paul was believed to have met St. Ananias, who was to baptize him. Today's partly covered Straight Street hardly seems a likely place for biblical miracles.

It is a bustling market where everything from Persian rugs to sweets, nuts and coffee are sold from tiny stores owned by Christians and Muslims. The place is also representative of Syria's rich mix of cultures and religions, with ruins from Roman temples, houses dating to the Ottoman era and ancient churches.

''If my priest says we don't recognize the pope as Orthodox Christians, that is his business. I'll bring my wife and two children to see the pope when he drives through this street,'' said George Boutros Habib, sitting at a sewing machine in his small tailor shop on Straight Street.

An Orthodox Christian married to an Armenian, Habib declared: ''The pope is for everyone.''

Omar Ibrahim, who sells carpets on Straight Street, had just emerged from a mosque after noon prayers when he was asked about the pope's visit. ''Syria is beautiful and everyone is welcome,'' he said.

A short walk from Straight Street near the Eastern Gate, one of seven on the ancient walls surrounding old Damascus, is the underground Chapel of St. Ananias, believed to be the place where Paul was baptized.

The dungeon-like church built with stones is down a 23-step flight of stairs. It will not be visited by the ailing John Paul, apparently because of the physical effort involved, but the pontiff will drive past it during his stay in Damascus.

A room next to the chapel is where Paul, according to tradition, was baptized. The stone walls are adorned with 29 color sketches telling the story of St. Paul in Arabic, English and French.

In another church associated with St. Paul, icons depict episodes from his life in Damascus, including his escape from Jews angered at his preaching Christianity.

This Church of St. Paul was, tradition says, built at the very spot of the dramatic escape. Paul was lowered in a basket to safety outside the walls of Damascus.

The pope was to visit the small, stone church built in the late 1930s.

End Adv for Friday, May 4, and thereafter



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