Beirut — As violent protests against an anti-Islam film spread to much of the Muslim world on Sept. 14, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon to a warm welcome from Christian and Muslim leaders.
The pontiff’s appeal for peace and reconciliation in the region, however, stood in jarring contrast with violent clashes in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which left one dead and 25 injured, Religion News Service reports.
Landing at Beirut’s airport in the early afternoon, Benedict praised Lebanon as an example of “coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions.” Without referring expressly to the unrest, the pope warned that the country’s “equilibrium” is “extremely delicate.”
As angry mobs in Tripoli chanted slogans against the U.S. and the pope’s visit, the mood in Beirut, about 45 miles south, was enthusiastic for Benedict’s arrival. Hundreds of people cheered the pope’s passage along the city’s streets, waving Lebanese and Vatican flags.
Lebanon has the largest Christian minority in the Middle East — forming around 40 percent of the country’s 4 million citizens. Even before this week’s anti-Western attacks, the country’s complex balance of religious and political groups was threatened by neighboring Syria’s descent into civil war.
Benedict did not mention Syria in his official speeches. But answering reporters’ questions aboard the plane to Lebanon, he appealed for an end to arm sales to Syria, labeling it as a “grave sin.”
The official reason for Benedict’s three-day trip is to deliver the final document from a 2010 Vatican meeting of Middle East bishops. He signed the document during an elaborate ceremony at the Greek-Melkite Patriarchate attended by Catholic leaders from across the region.
In the document, Benedict calls upon Christians, Muslims and Jews to work together to eliminate “fundamentalism,” which “indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions.” He said fundamentalists seek to “gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons.”
He also said the document, “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,” shows “openness to authentic interreligious dialogue based on faith in the one God, the Creator” and “seeks to contribute to an ecumenism full of human, spiritual and charitable fervor, in evangelical truth and love.”
The pope also tried to reassure Christian minorities in the Middle East who feel threatened by the region’s instability and by the rise of Islamist governments after the tumult of the Arab Spring revolutions. “Fear not, because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you,” he told Middle East Christians.
At the same time, Benedict reaffirmed his support for the Arab Spring movement, praising its “desire for more democracy” and “more freedom.”