Pope John Paul II ended a six-day pilgrimage that retraced the steps of the Apostle Paul with a triumphant appearance on Malta, an island that is 98 percent Roman Catholic.
A crowd of 100,000, roughly half the nation's population, attended the papal Mass at which the 80-year-old pontiff made a touching reference to his own frailty. "I remember and feel very close to the elderly," he said. "To the sick I say: Have hope and be strong."
This trip had a better end than a beginning.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad, scion of a ruler who slaughtered 20,000 of his own countrymen, took the occasion of the pope's visit to make a blatant appeal for religious hatred.
An old libel: Standing beside John Paul, a man who has worked to break down barriers between Christians and Jews, Assad accused Israelis of trying "to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad."
Ignoring the fact that Israel has been far more tolerant of Muslim religious practices in Israel and the occupied territories than Muslim countries are of any religion other than their own, Assad suggested that that Christians and Muslims join in a holy war against Israel and Jews.
It would have been an outrageous display of intolerance under any circumstance. To inject such hatefulness into a welcoming ceremony for the pope broke all diplomatic boundaries.
John Paul should have abandoned any diplomatic pretense and repaid Assad's impertinence with an on-the-spot upbraiding.
As noted, this was an obviously tiring trip for a man who is showing his age. To listen to a head of state repeat the very "Christ-killer" libel that the pope has specifically condemned had to be unsettling. Expecting the pope to react on the spot to what obviously had to be a surprising attack on a nation and its people is perhaps too much to ask.
Two apologies: We know it is too much to ask for Assad to rethink his words. He not only owes an apology to the Jewish people, but to Pope John Paul as well.
Neither will come because Assad's performance tells the world what it has feared. He is weak, and he is so afraid of losing his grip on the power he has inherited that he is willing to pander to his people and to the rest of the Arab world. His viciousness in word is exceeded only by his father's earlier viciousness in deed.
In his later years, Hafez Assad was confident enough in his power that he was willing to explore the possibility of peace with Israel. It appears that it will be a long time before his son reaches that level of maturity, if he ever does.