This week, Pope Benedict XVI began a three-day visit in Lebanon amid escalating tensions in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. This event is highly symbolic, as it is the first papal visit to Lebanon since the late Pope John Paul II 15 years ago, and the second one to the Middle East after the 2009 visit to Jerusalem.
It is important to analyse the papal arrival in relation to the recent unrest in the region. The Pope provides a valuable tool for the cause of inter-religious dialogue, and his visit highlights the presence of Christians in the Middle East.
Soon after the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in Beirut on Friday, clashes erupted in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and a man was killed in protests over the movie ‘Innocence of Muslims.’ Indirectly, the protests were also in response to the Pope’s visit to Lebanon, as he represents the Christian community. As a result, in Tripoli, KFC and Hardees were attacked as part of the anti-Western protests.
Earlier this week, the American ambassador and three others were killed in Libya, and the domino-effect demonstrations against the film made in the U.S. are spreading to other Muslim countries around the world. On the ‘Arab Spring,’ the Pope praised the revolutions, which reflect the aim for more democracy, freedom, cooperation, and a “renewed Arab identity.” The Pope also called for ending weapons imports to Syria, a move which he said would stop the war, and he praised the idea of peace instead. Even though these escalations coincide with Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival to Lebanon, the Pope did not cancel his visit, saying that “as the situation becomes more complicated, it is even more necessary to offer a sign of fraternal encouragement and solidarity. Therefore the aim of my visit is an invitation to dialogue, to peace and against violence, to go forward together to find solutions to the problems.” He added that he is thankful to be able to visit “at this time this great country which is a message of encounter for the three religions in this region.”
Another aspect to the Pope’s visit to Lebanon relates to the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ‘Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,’ which he signed on Friday evening in the basilica of St. Paul in Harissa, Lebanon. One chapter addresses the issue of inter-religious dialogue and “ecumenical unity,” describing it as a “form of mosaic.” The Pope also promoted recognition and respect for others and in this context, Lebanon would be a good platform as it has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East (roughly 40% out of the 4 million inhabitants). Moreover, Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state and is formed of 18 confessions. Regarding the Christian-Muslim dialogue, Pope Benedict XVI said it is unfortunate how doctrinal differences have been used as an excuse by both Christians and Muslims to justify, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization, and persecution. Furthermore, the Pope insisted on the coexistence of religious beliefs without putting one’s liberty into jeopardy.
Finally, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation addresses the critical issue of the presence of Christians in the Middle East and he said, “the Middle East without Christians would no longer be the Middle East.” It is important to note that the Christians in this region have been continuously migrating as a result of wars and political instability. However, when Pope Benedict XVI was asked about the controversial issue of supporting the ‘Arab Spring’ while more and more Christians have been immigrating as a result of prosecutions and fundamentalist regimes, he argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ is a “cry for liberty, which comes from a more culturally educated and professional young people, who want greater participation in political and social life.” He said that these revolutions have also been “hailed by Christians as well.” He added that “the basic message of religion must be against violence which is a falsification like fundamentalism, it must be education and the illumination and purification of conscience to promote dialogue, reconciliation and peace.”
In addition, the Pope warned about the dangers of the Christians leaving these lands, which were jointly built “by the Christians and the Arabs.” Therefore, he said the only option would be to end the war through a constructive dialogue. When asked about alternative ways apart from prayers and expressions of solidarity to support the Middle Eastern Christians, the Pope emphasized on the importance of public opinion through the work of journalists. He suggested working creatively for peace against violence along with charity organizations that should help in a material sense as well.
Pope Benedict XVI's visit should give a message of hope and strength for Christians and Muslims, since overall, the Pope stressed peace and harmony among the different communities.
However, mutual acceptance needs to start from within. Feelings of insecurity and marginalisation of one community against another only create more violence. Multi-confessional Lebanon is a blessing and should be an example for coexistence; the Lebanese should benefit from this richness and positively exploit it in order to avoid wasteful confessional conflicts.