Syria Ahmad Bader Hassoun has invited Pope Benedict XVI to Damascus

The grand mufti of Syria Ahmad Bader Hassoun has invited Pope Benedict XVI to Damascus to celebrate the year of St Paul, the apostle converted on the road to Damascus.

The grand mufti, a leader of Syria's 18 million Muslims, met with Italian journalists who were visiting Damascus as part of their own celebration of the Pauline year.

Vatican Radio reported on August 1 that the grand mufti said he hoped to meet Pope Benedict in Rome and he hoped the Pope would visit Damascus before the Pauline celebrations ended next June.

The Pope convoked the year-long celebration to mark the 2000th anniversary of St Paul's birth.

The Vatican nuncio in Syria Archbishop Giovanni Battista Morandini told the Italian reporters that the country's two million Christians Orthodox and Catholics had joined together to discuss St Paul's life, writings and witness.

The Vatican Radio report said Syria was not the only country that has extended a Pauline year invitation to the Pope; "other nations in the Middle East that saw the passage or presence of St Paul on their territory" have done likewise, Vatican Radio said, although it did not name the countries.

The Vatican has not confirmed any papal trips outside Italy after the Pope's September 12-15 trip to Paris and Lourdes, France.

However, in late July, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told an Italian Catholic newspaper that while decisions about papal travel for 2009 had not been finalised Africa was likely to be on the list.

"The Church in Africa deserves a trip by the Pope," Cardinal Bertone told the newspaper Avvenire.

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