John Paul II Interrupts Annual Retreat to Receive Assad

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 21, 2002 ( John Paul II interrupted his annual retreat today to receive Syrian President Bashar Assad in audience. The two discussed, among other things, the possible ways to re-establish peace in the Middle East.

According to Father Ciro Benedettini, assistant director of the Vatican Press Office, the talks also touched on relations between Syria and the Holy See, following John Paul II’s historic to Damascus last May 5-7. Syria is 2% Catholic and 86% Muslim.

Assad, 36, and the Pope reflected on “ways to re-establish peace in the Middle East, particularly in the Holy Land, in virtue of the known United Nations resolutions,” Father Benedettini said in an official statement.

Following the private audience, the Syrian leader met Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state. Present at this second meeting were the Syrian Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Farouk Al-Shara, and the Vatican secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran.

Bashar Assad came to the Syrian presidency in 2000, following the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled the country for 30 years.