PUBLISHED: 07:49 EST, 14 September 2012 | UPDATED: 07:49 EST, 14 September 2012
The region is presently being rocked by the civil war in Syria, and violent Islamist protests against the United States are underway in Libya and Egypt.
While those tensions overshadowed preparations for the religiously sensitive visit, security was low-key in Beirut and the only protests – against a film denigrating the Muslim Prophet Mohammad – were due to take place far from the capital.
Even the militant Shi’ite movement Hezbollah has hung banners along the airport highway to greet Benedict. They feature a picture of him and texts in Arabic and French saying, ‘Hezbollah welcomes the Pope in the homeland of coexistence’.
The movement, whose military wing is classed as a terrorist group in Britain, also put up Arabic-only banners aimed at the local populace which read: ‘Welcome to you in the homeland of resistance.’
In Christian districts of the capital, pictures of the 85-year-old Pope are plastered on every street, and church bells were rung throughout Friday morning.
Benedict XVI was welcomed by leaders including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker, as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Cannons fired a 21-shot salute.
‘The Pope is with us,’ was the headline in Al-Nahar newspaper, which said more than 5,000 military and security personnel were being deployed to protect the pontiff. Beirut airport was due to close to all air traffic for two hours shortly before his arrival at 13.45 local time (10.45 GMT).
Samir Khalil Samir, a Catholic expert on Islam, said he did not expect major security problems despite anti-U.S. protests in Libya, Egypt and Yemen. He said all Lebanese communities saw the trip as a gesture of peace.
‘He will bring a spiritual message – one with political consequences, of course, but spiritual,’ he told Reuters.
Speaking on the plane to Lebanon, the Pope told reporters that the importing of weapons to Syria is a ‘grave sin’. Syria’s rebels have appealed for weapons shipments to help them fight President Assad’s regime.
Benedict added that he was not afraid to visit Lebanon, and described the Arab Spring that has already removed four long-serving dictators as ‘positive’.
‘It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more co-operation and for a renewed Arab identity,’ the Pope said.
The pontiff said he never considered cancelling the trip for security reasons, saying that ‘no one ever advised (me) to renounce this trip and personally, I have never considered this’.
This is Benedict’s fourth trip to the Middle East as Pope, and will see him stress unity among the different Christian churches in the region and peace between Christians and Muslims.
His visit will be restricted to Beirut and its surroundings and will end on Sunday.
The Pope will also urge Christians not to leave the Middle East, the birthplace of the faith that they have been steadily abandoning in recent decades to escape wars, political unrest and discrimination by the region’s majority Muslim population.
On Friday, Benedict will issue a document along these lines known as an ‘apostolic exhortation’, which is based on discussions among Catholic bishops at a Rome synod on the Middle East in 2010.
He will also hold two major open-air events and meet leaders of all Lebanon’s Christian and Islamic communities, as well as the country’s political leaders.
Christians now make up about five per cent of the Middle Eastern population, down from 20 per cent a century ago. If current pressures and their low birth rates continue, some estimates say their 12 million total could be halved by 2020.
Blessings: The Pope stood and waved to the crowds who gathered to meet him at the airport
The Pope’s message of peace will be especially directed towards Syria, whose border is only 50 km (30 miles) away. Opposition activists claim more than 27,000 people have now been killed there in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Clashes have occasionally spilled over into Lebanese territory, prompting fears of further fighting in a country still recovering from the civil war that raged from 1975 until 1990.
Tensions have been rising between Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, who generally back the uprising led by Syria’s Sunni majority, and Shi’ites who largely support Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
About two-thirds of Lebanon’s Christians are in full communion with the Vatican, either as members of the five local churches linked to Rome – the Maronites, the largest group, and the Greek Melkite, Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean Catholics – or of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church itself.
There are also five Orthodox churches – the Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian and Coptic Orthodox – and small groups of Protestants, mostly Presbyterians and Anglicans.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2203205/Pope-visits-Lebanon-bring-message-peace-region-torn-apart-protests-civil-war.html#ixzz26Vyzfg00