VATICAN, Feb 21, 02 (CWNews.com) -- Pope John Paul II
today met with Syrian President Bashar el Assad, who
was in Italy as part of an effort to encourage the
European Union to play a more active role in the Middle
East peace process.

The Holy Father took the unusual step of interrupting
his annual Lenten retreat for his brief conversation
with Assad, which an official Vatican statement
described as "cordial." The statement indicated that
the conversation had revolved around " ways to restore
peace to the Middle East, especially the Holy Land, on
the basis of the well-known UN resolutions."

The Syrian president had traveled to Rome with his wife
and infant son, as well a large entourage of about 160
people, many of whom were security officers. But he met
alone with the Pope for a 10-minute conversation.
Before that private meeting, the two exchanged formal
greetings, with Assad thanking the Pope for his visit
to Syria last May.

During that papal visit, Assad had embarrassed the
Pontiff by lashing out at the Israeli government during
his welcoming remarks. The Syrian president made no
such diplomatic gaffe during this trip to the Vatican--
although in remarks to the Italian press the day before
the meeting, he had harshly criticized both Israel and
the United States.

Israel's ambassador to Italy, Ehud Gol, returned that
criticism in his own remarks, saying that Assad is "the
head of an inhuman regime," and criticizing the Pope
for meeting with him. Gol said that Syria should be
ostracized for its "terrorism, anti-Semitism, and
violations of human rights."