Pope says Lebanon can be example to Mideast

AFP , Friday 14 Sep 2012

Pope Benedict XVI describes Lebanon as an 'example' of religious stability in the Middle East during his three-day visit to the country

Pope Benedict XVI waves from the podium next to Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman upon his arrival at Beirut's airport September 14, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI landed in Lebanon on Friday to start a three-day visit, saying the multi-faith country could serve as an example to a troubled Middle East and warning against fundamentalism.

Stressing the key element of the first papal visit to Lebanon in 15 years -- reconciliation between Christians and Muslims -- he derided fundamentalism as "always a falsification of religion."

But before his plane even touched down, he was attacked by a Qatar-based group of Muslim scholars, who accused him of seeking to sow divisions between the two religions.

He also turned to the conflicts that have torn the Middle East, calling for an end to arms imports by Syria, where a civil war is raging, and hailed the Arab Spring that has toppled several dictators.

A crowd of dignitaries and around 100 cheering supporters looked on at Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport, one holding up a banner that read "Joy to Lebanon. The pope has arrived."

The 85-year-old pontiff was greeted by President Michel Sleiman, the Middle East's only Christian head of state, to a 21-gun salute and as church bells rang out around the country.

In an address to the Lebanese, the pope said: "The celebrated Lebanese equilibrium which wishes to continue to be a reality will continue through the goodwill and commitment of all Lebanese.

"Only then will it serve as a model to the inhabitants of the whole region and of the entire world."

The Lebanon of which the pope spoke is riven by sectarian tensions, as fighting rages next door in Syria, with sharp differences among Christians and Muslims over support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The pope said he came to Lebanon as "a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men.

"I also come symbolically to all the countries of the Middle East ... whatever their origins and beliefs."

Benedict is to unveil this weekend the findings of a synod of bishops he convened in 2010 to address the future of Christians in the region and their relations with other faiths, particularly Islam.

But his plea for reconciliation among religions in the Middle East was flatly rejected by a group of Muslim scholars based in Qatar, which accused him of spreading fear of Muslims among Christians.

In a Thursday statement, the International Union of Muslim Scholars accused him of "fuelling sedition between partners (in Lebanon)" by "planning to sign an apostolic exhortation that contains dangerous messages and ideas."

It claimed the messages include a "warning from the Islamisation of the society and spreading fear among Christians from political Islam in the region.

"It is strange that at the time the pope warns from political Islam, he himself practices large-scale political Christianity," it added.

The pope will reach out to the estimated 13 million Catholics in the Middle East, asking them to work for peace and democracy alongside moderate Islamists, in a period fraught with fears of a rise of fundamentalism.

Those concerns are particularly poignant as the region is rocked by deadly violence over a film mocking Islam that cost the lives of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans on Tuesday.

Around 200 protesters took to the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Thursday to express outrage over the US-produced film.

Benedict will have to weigh his words carefully to avoid politically charged comments that could increase religious tensions -- and is expected to speak out in favour of a secularism that guarantees cultural and religious freedom.

In that vein, he is expected to call on Lebanon's Christians to unite, divided as they are not only toward the regime in Damascus but also over a political vision for their own country.

Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan has said he hopes the pope will also use the trip to call for negotiations in Syria, but here too Benedict must tread carefully.

Lebanese security forces are on high alert for the visit, and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said this week that it "will be one of the most successful visits in the history of modern Lebanon."

All roads on which the pope travels will be cut to other traffic.

After his arrival, the pope was to head off to the mountain town of Harissa, where he will be staying and where he will sign the final report on the synod of bishops.

On Saturday, he will meet Sleiman, a member of the Maronite Catholic church, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, as well as Muslim religious leaders and the diplomatic corps in Beirut.

Then, after lunch with eastern patriarchs and bishops in Bzommar, near Harissa, he will meet with Lebanese youth at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkerke, another village in the same area.

On Sunday, he will celebrate an open-air mass at Beirut City Centre Waterfront and unveil the conclusions of the 2010 synod of bishops, before returning to Rome.

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