Pope Awed by Mt. Sinai, Back to Rome

Article excerpt

SAINT CATHERINE'S MONASTERY, Egypt (AFP) -- The granite peaks of Mount Sinai, where tradition says God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses amid storms of fire, overlooked Pope John Paul II as he made his first steps on a millennial pilgrimage to the biblical lands.

On his 90th official trip overseas, the pope said yesterday he was filled with "great joy and deep emotion" at finally beginning to fulfill his dream of walking "in the footsteps of God."

He flew back to Cairo later Saturday and from there returned to Rome after being seen off by President Hosni Mubarak and religious leaders from Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Next month he will return to the holy lands of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories to visit Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptised on the River Jordan.

Mount Sinai, which towers over the Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Catherine where the pope stopped on Saturday, is revered not only by Christians, but by Jews and Muslims, all of whom recognize Moses' calling.

According to the Bible, the calm waters of the Red Sea which flanks the Sinai peninsula once parted at God's command to let the Israelites flee Egypt into the promised land.

And it was through the burning bush, now believed to be situated within the monastery's 1,500-year-old walls, that God told Moses to undertake that journey and lead his people out of the slavery of the Pharoahs.

Egypt's 2,285 meter-summit Mount Sinai and the monastery at its foot capture the imaginations of thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year, evoking the moments on which Jewish and Christian history are founded.

During his pilgrimage, a frail 79-year-old pope, supporting himself on a cane, was offered cuttings of the overflowing bramble that monks at the monastery have no doubt is the same bush.

The Orthodox community, isolated in their narrow desert vally 1,700 metres above sea level, awoke at 4 a.m. on the day of the papal visit, as every day, for three hours of prayers ending in a chapel dedicated to the bush.

"It's the most beautiful time of the day," said Father Justin, 50, from Boston, explaining how the starlit sky gradually turns to day as the service progresses, with sun streaming through the windows at certain times of year.

A few hours after the monks' daily service, Pope John Paul II took his shoes off as required to enter the Burning Bush Chapel, appearing as the simple pilgrim he claimed to be. …