DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syria's government-appointed Muslim leader, Sheik Ahmad Kiftaro, has defended President Bashar Assad's remarks on Jews during Pope John Paul II's visit, calling Western criticisms ''an echo of the Zionist hatred of the Arabs.''
In a speech welcoming the pope, Assad had attacked ''those who tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad.''
Attacks on the United States for criticizing Assad's statement dominated the nation's state-controlled media for days, though Germany and France took similar stands.
Kiftaro said in a sermon that Arabs ''follow religions of love, tolerance and peace, while the Zionists are the murderers of prophets, criminals and racists,'' the government news agency reported.
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