2002-06-10 00:00:00

After a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he foresees a strengthening of relations between his country and the Holy See.

Mahathir met with the pope June 7. He also held discussions with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican´s secretary for relations with states. The Holy See and Malaysia do not have diplomatic relations.

The discussions focused on "the present state of Church-State relations in Malaysia" and ways to promote dialogue with particular focus on "the cultural links between Islam and Christianity," according to a Vatican press statement.

Mahathir told UCA News in an impromptu press conference later in the day that he and the pope "mostly discussed about Southeast Asia and Malaysia, and how Malaysia is progressing."

"We also discussed religious freedom in Malaysia, and they seemed quite satisfied with the situation in Malaysia," he said.

The Malaysian leader, who is chairman of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference, added that he also "made a plea to the pope for the end of terrorism in Palestine, and Israeli actions against Palestine."

He said he and the pope agreed on the need for a third party to help Palestinians and Israelis resolve their ongoing conflict. He added that both of them saw the need "to try to put an end" to terrorism "by negotiations" and agreed that "the causes of terrorism can be removed."

When asked by UCA News whether he invited the pope to Malaysia, he said, "Well I don´t think that he would be able to accept an invitation." When asked further whether he envisaged a pope going to Malaysia in the future, he replied, "Maybe, why not?"

Upon his arrival at the Vatican just before 11 a.m., he was welcomed by an 18-man Swiss honor guard and accompanied to the pope´s third-floor apartment.

Pope John Paul received him in his private library, and gave him a warm welcome. Sitting side by side in armchairs at the end of a long table, the two leaders spoke together in private for 10 minutes.

Afterward, Mahathir, looking relaxed and pleased, presented his wife Siti Hasmah, and a 15-member delegation, to an equally relaxed and smiling pope. The two men then exchanged gifts.

The Malaysian delegation included two Catholic ministers, Leo Moggie, minister of Energy, Communications and Multimedia, and Bernard Dompok, minister in the Prime Minister´s Office.

When asked what Islamic countries could do to prevent international terrorism, which the West sometimes attributes to Islam, Mahathir told media, "It´s not so much Islam as the loss of the territories. The Palestinians were expelled from their own territory and their own land has been occupied."

"It´s not so much a religious war, as it is a war, a fight to regain their own territories," he said. "Because most Palestinians are Muslims, they attract a lot of sympathy from Muslims all over the world," he added.

Responding to a question about what Islamic countries could do to stop Al Qaeda and international terrorism, the Muslim leader said, "Apart from putting a stop to Al Qaeda through military measures and security measures, we need to find out why they are behaving in that way, which is not Islamic at all."

He said that the way Al Qaeda is acting "is related to what is happening in Palestine and in many other Muslim countries, where they have the feeling that they are being oppressed."

After leaving the Vatican, the Malaysian prime minister drove to a mosque in Rome to pray.

Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, has three major ethnic groups, namely the Malay, Chinese and Indians. Its 700,000 Catholics are a respected minority in a population of 23 millions, Church observers noted.

Relations between Christians and Muslims have been cordial in Malaysia, and will certainly be enhanced by the June 7 historic meeting, they added.

Mahathir´s visit was the first ever papal meeting with Malaysia.


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