Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
Billboards and flags erected by Hezbollah depicting Pope Benedict XVI decorate a bridge on the main airport road in Beirut in preparation for the pope's arrival tomorrow. The billboard reads: "Hezbollah welcomes the Pope to the country of co-existence."
BEIRUT – Pope Benedict XVI was all over Beirut before he even landed there.
Billboards, posters and flags bearing his image pave line the road that connects Rafic Hariri International Airport to the city center. “Welcome,” the signs say, in both Arabic and French, the two predominant languages here.
But among all the greetings, one stands out.
Hanging from a bridge next to a picture of a smiling Pope Benedict, one billboard in French reads: “Hezbollah welcomes the pope to the country of co-existence."
Lebanese people of all faiths - from Muslims, to Greek Orthodox and Christians - welcome the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Beirut.
Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamic political and paramilitary party classified by the United States as a terrorist group, is the most powerful of a myriad of religious groups in a country that has become an example of religious co-habitation after decades of sectarian violence and civil war.
For the 85-year-old pope, Hezbollah’s blessing was probably just what the Vatican was praying for.
With civil war still raging only a few miles across the border in Syria, and the recent wave of violence in the Middle East caused by the anti-Islamic video produced in the United States, this is probably the most sensitive trip ever attempted by the pope.
Largest Christian community in the Middle East
The choice of Lebanon for the pope’s fourth trip to the Middle East since 2005 is strongly symbolic.
About 40 percent of Lebanon’s population of 4.1 million is Christian, making it the country with the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Ali Hashisho / Reuters
A Muslim Hezbollah supporter crosses a street as people wait for the car carrying Pope Benedict XVI outside Beirut international airport on Friday.
It’s also an example of how Sunni, Shiite and Christians can not only live side by side in peace, but also share power in the government – an aspect the pope has not missed.
“The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East, and to the rest of the world that, within a nation, there can exist cooperation between the various churches,” Benedict said upon his arrival at Beirut’s airport Friday.
In downtown Beirut, Lebanese from all religious backgrounds seem to be united in their excitement about his visit.
“I think the pope’s visit is going to make a big difference, especially in the view of what’s happening these days, like the protests,” said Mustafa Zaher, a Muslim student. “He is coming for peace and bringing Muslims and Christians closer, that’s the important thing. Peace… we need peace.”
Nancy Sayah, a Maronite Christian agreed: “We are very excited about the pope’s visit because it brings all Christians together from the political parties, as well as the Muslims,” said Sayah. “It’s a peaceful visit and hopefully will bring peace for the region.”
Instead of spreading his usual message of peace from the safety of a Vatican window, this time the pope will deliver it only a few miles from a major conflict zone. The border with neighboring Syria is only 30 miles from Beirut, and expectations are mounting about what Benedict might say to try to ease violence there.
Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
Banners erected by Hezbollah depicting Pope Benedict XVI as well as Lebanese and Vatican flags decorate a main airport road in Beirut. These banners read:
While it is widely expected that he’ll wait until the open-air mass he’ll lead on Beirut’s waterfront on Sunday to make his most vocal calls for peace in Syria, Benedict already told reporters on the plane from Rome that weapons imported into the war-torn country are “a grave sin.”
“The import of weapons has to finally stop,'' Benedict told journalists on the plane, according to Reuters. “Without the import of arms the war cannot continue. Instead of importing weapons, which is a grave sin, we have to import ideas of peace and creativity.”
He also told reporters that the Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes were "a positive thing. There is a desire for more democracy, more freedoms, more cooperation and renewal.”
But the uprisings could also be a double-edge sword for Christians in the Middle East.
While the Arab Spring has brought a glimpse of democracy in countries that were run by dictators, the Islamist governments that replaced them have so far raised cause for concern for Christians.
For instance, Syrian Christians had enjoyed relative religious freedom under President Bashar al-Assad’s secular regime, but now they are reporting increasing waves of sectarian violence and discrimination, and are starting to flee en masse.
Coptic Christians in Egypt have similarly complained about being discriminated against and being the target of several attacks on their churches. (ADD LINK)
“The visit to Lebanon is important because it shows Christians they still matter, they are part of this Middle East,” said Tony Restom, a Greek Orthodox from Beirut. “So for him to make a stop in Lebanon does mean a lot for Christians – and does show Muslims that the world and the Vatican still keep an eye on this region.”
Violence in Lebanon, too
As if the war in neighboring Syria wasn’t enough to raise concern over the pope’s safety, he lands in the Middle East only days after an anti-Islamic movie released in the U.S., believed to be produced by a California-based Coptic Christian, led to violent clashes all across the region.
Thousands of people protesting the film in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli clashed with police Friday. One protester was killed and at least 14 people were wounded after Islamist protesters set fire to a Kentucky Fried Chicken and tried to attack a government building.
Not the welcome the pope probably hoped for, on the day he came in peace.
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