Christians and Muslims attend mass in Damascus marking 2,000 years since birth of Saint Paul.
DAMASCUS - Predominantly Muslim Syria has launched a celebration to mark 2,000 years since the birth of Saint Paul, who converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus and helped spread the new religion to the non-Jewish world.
A mass was attended by both Christians and Muslims in the capital of officially secular Syria, with other events being organised over the next 12 months with the help of the tourism ministry.
"Syria is an example of brotherhood between Christians and Muslims," Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha Qalaa told the official SANA news agency. "This is down to its location at the crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa."
The mufti of Syria, Sheikh Badreddin Hassun, called Syria "the cradle of the monotheistic religions."
This week a walk was organised "in the footsteps of St. Paul" in the Old City of Damascus, including a visit to the underground Hanania Church where the Jew born as Saul of Tarsus converted to Christianity.
The Melkite Greek Catholic Church will organise conferences, exhibitions and other cultural events in line with the Pauline Year announced by the Vatican to pay tribute to the saint.
Paul was born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, somewhere around seven to 10 AD. He died in Rome, where tradition holds that he was beheaded on the orders of the Emperor Nero.
In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles recount how Paul, born as Saul, was travelling to Damascus from Jerusalem with letters authorising him to persecute Christians there.
The Bible says he was surrounded by a bright light which caused him to fall from his horse, blinded. A voice from Heaven, believed to be that of Jesus, said "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"
It was from that experience that Saul converted to Christianity, being baptised a few days later in Damascus after he recovered his sight.
In an allusion to Paul's experience, dramatic conversions to Christianity are often called a Damascene experience.
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