Pope Benedict XVI has a visit planned for Lebanon, beginning this Friday, to last for three days. With the civil war in neighbouring Syria, 50 kilometres from Beirut, it will be the closest the pope has come to a military conflict since his election in 2005.
At the basilica of St. Paul, in Harissa, north of the capital, he will issue a document known as an “apostolic exhortation” – a call for attention on subjects such as regional security, the exodus of Christians from the region and the need for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the visit organisers, Marwan Tabet, anticipated what Benedict will say:
“I am sure that he is worried about the Christians and Christianity in Syria, as well he is worried about the Christians in the entire region. That is why an important part of his message will be to the Muslims in the region and to all the regimes. Can you imagine a Middle East without the Christians in it? What would be your stand on that?”
Lebanon is the only country in the region that is multiconfessional in its 1926 constitution – 18 official religious communities coexist here, around 35 percent of them Christian and 65 percent Muslim. The Lebanese had their own civil war from 1975 to 1990.
Most of the religious leaders have said they welcome the Pope’s visit. They will meet on Saturday.
Shi’ite leader Ali Fadlallah said he is looking forward to it: “We think this visit emphasizes the importance of Christian and Muslim coexistence – improves its chances, and we certainly need this now, with the fears of strife in our region.”
But Lebanon’s Salafists, with a strict, literalist approach to Islam, are not keen on seeing the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Salafi cleric Omar Bakri Fostock said: “The pope is not welcome in this country as far as I am concerned. I represent myself and the Islamic views I believe in, because he did insult my religion, insulting my beloved messenger Mohammed – may peace of God be upon him – in his public speech, when he said Islam is an evil call and it is not suitable for humanities, and Mohammed has spread it by force.”
The Vatican says it is confident about Benedict’s security, and that all the Christians, Muslims, Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze and Alawite communities have reacted positively to the trip. Two major open-air events are planned.