By Edward Pentin
ROME, SEPT. 13, 2012 (Zenit.org).- As Pope Benedict XVI lands in Beirut on Friday, Islamist groups in Cairo will be hoping to hold a “million man march” to protest against an obscure YouTube video that has caused riots in parts of the Arab world and led to the first murder of an American ambassador in 33 years.
But despite the unrest, and the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, the Pope’s three-day visit is expected to pass peacefully. The streets of Beirut are reportedly calm and, remarkably for such a divided and volatile region, none of Lebanon’s religious groups has formally voiced opposition to the visit.
On the contrary, leaders of all Lebanon’s Christian denominations and the country’s Muslim branches — Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze and Alawites — have unequivocally welcomed it. Even the head of the militant group Hezbollah has given the visit his blessing.
The main purpose of the Holy Father’s apostolic voyage is to deliver his postsynodal apostolic exhortation — or final summary document — on the 2010 synod on the Middle East. That three-week meeting at the Vatican drew Church leaders from across the Middle East, as well as Jewish and Muslim leaders. It took place just months before the Arab Spring erupted.
But even before the current regional unrest that led to the slaying of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other US officials in Benghazi, many were speculating whether the Pope might cancel the visit. Some have feared the uprising in neighboring Syria could spill over into Lebanon, which has already admitted tens of thousands of refugees. According to the Associated Press, several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have recently urged their citizens not to visit Lebanon because of security concerns over the recent violence.
And yet to cancel would not have been consistent with the Pope’s character: he has never flinched from difficult foreign visits during his pontificate, and although the fighting is in close proximity, opposition to this trip — and there is some — is a far cry from the tensions that marked his visit to Britain in 2010, or his very delicate trip to Turkey in 2006.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi told reporters this week that a warm welcome is to be expected, and that the government has declared Saturday an official holiday in Benedict’s honor and to allow the nation’s people to greet him.
During his visit, the third by a pope to Lebanon (Paul VI visited in 1964, John Paul II in 1997), Benedict XVI is expected to address a wide variety of concerns, particularly regional conflicts, political instability and economic hardships that have caused thousands of Christians to emigrate from the region.
Still, neither the Pope’s presence nor the apostolic exhortation are expected to bring immediate, visible change. The Pope, who the Vatican is at pains to point out is visiting as a pilgrim and not as a political leader, has stressed that he is a “messenger of peace” and that peace depends not on him so much as Middle East Christians themselves.
“I exhort all Christians of the Middle East, both those born there and the newly arrived, to be builders of peace and architects of reconciliation,” he said at the end of his general audience on Wednesday. “Let us pray to God that he may fortify the faith of Christians in Lebanon and the Middle East, and fill them with hope.”
But where the Pope’s visit may make a more immediate and visible difference is in improving public perceptions in the area. The Custodian of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said he expected the visit to have a “major impact” on public opinion and the media, helping to create “a more positive attitude toward Christians and the Church.”
And in view of the current violence in the region, many see the visit as timely and providential. Conditions in Syria are reportedly deteriorating dramatically: some convents, monasteries and parishes are now filled with refugees, according to Fr. Pizzaballa, who said the situation “is out of control.” He is especially concerned the small Christian communities, whose members are “crucial to the future of the Middle East,” will further diminish in number. And the longer the conflict lasts, he believes, the harder it will be to heal divisions, probably causing more Christians to emigrate.
“Here you see that violence is never a solution and will produce very deep wounds that will be difficult to treat in the future,” the Custos explained. “For these reasons, the small Christian communities will certainly suffer a further reduction of their already reduced numbers.”
He believes Syria’s Christians, and those in other Middle East countries as a whole, are acting as a “litmus test” to understanding the Arab Spring and how matters are evolving during this time of change. Furthermore, he sees the outcome in Syria as crucial to the future of the region.
“That conflict is perceived by all as [determining] the basis of the future of the Middle East: Shia/Sunni, Christians, West/East, opposing positions within the international community and among the Arab countries,” he said. “All these questions are now suspended, waiting to see what will happen in that country. Or rather, that country will decide many of these issues.”
For all these reasons, the Pope’s visit, coming at this especially delicate time in the history of the Middle East, is particularly welcome. “We need this reassurance,” said Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian expert on Islam who teaches in Lebanon. “[We need] him to say to the world there is something more important than war and violence.”
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Given its rich history, pluralism and general equality of citizenship for Christians who make up more than 40% of its population, Lebanon is the most appropriate Middle East country for the Pope to visit.
The Pope’s choice of this Arab country to send a message to the whole Middle East is, in itself, “a statement,” said Tony Nasrallah, professor of modern history at the American University of Byblos in Lebanon. Speaking to the Italian writer Manuela Borraccino, he said he believed the visit is in effect a “call for equal citizenship to be strengthened in Lebanon and to be extended to other Arab countries.” Lebanon, he pointed out, is the “only Arab country where everyone can change his religion, and can exercise a real freedom of conscience.”
After a welcoming ceremony at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri international airport, the Holy Father will visit St. Paul’s Basilica in Harissa where he will sign the postsynodal apostolic exhortation. The following morning, he will address diplomats, political and religious leaders at the Baabda presidential palace before meeting a group of youth in a nearby square. The highlight will be an open-air Mass on Beirut’s City Center Waterfront on Sunday, Sept. 16, followed by a recitation of the Angelus. The Pope will return to Rome soon afterward.
In a briefing to journalists, Fr. Lombardi did not rule out that the Pope would meet some supporters of Hezbollah, considered by the US as a terrorist group and which is close to both Syria’s Assad regime and Iran. The Vatican spokesman also said the Holy Father may meet with Syrian refugees — some 67,000 are currently living in Lebanon, according to UN estimates.
Whatever the fruits of the visit, democracy, liberty and equality of citizenship “will take some time, maybe some decades,” according to Fr. Samir. But he added that people in the Arab world “really want change” — not a change in religion but a “change in the authoritarianism and away from extremism.” Similarly, he and others would like to see a less clerical Church in the Middle East, and more lay participation.
The hope is such changes may begin in Lebanon and then spread to the whole region, including to non-Christians. But it requires the people of the Middle East to heed the recommendations of the apostolic exhortation and then see where it leads.
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Edward Pentin can be reached at [email protected]