Fransiscan monks visit the spot where Pope Benedict XVI is going to celebrate mass this weekend on Beirut's beach front
Fransiscan monks visit the spot where Pope Benedict XVI is going to celebrate mass this weekend on Beirut's beach front. Security forces are on alert in Lebanon as the country, torn by conflicting attitudes toward the uprising in neighbouring Syria and its own sectarian divide, prepares to receive Pope Benedict XVI this week. © Patrick Baz - AFP
Fransiscan monks visit the spot where Pope Benedict XVI is going to celebrate mass this weekend on Beirut's beach front
<
>
Mohamad Ali Harissi, AFP
Last updated: September 13, 2012

Lebanon security on alert in run-up to papal visit

Security forces are on alert in Lebanon as the country, torn by conflicting attitudes toward the uprising in neighbouring Syria and its own sectarian divide, prepares to receive Pope Benedict XVI this week.

"The security agencies are on alert and the municipal services are on alert for the pope's visit, which will be one of the most successful visits in the history of modern Lebanon," Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said in an interview with AFP.

"There is no doubt we are living in a tough atmosphere in Lebanon, to some extent as a result of what is happening in Syria and what is happening around us, but the situation is under control ... and Lebanon is a stable country," he said.

"There might be incidents in certain areas, but things remain under control."

Cross-border shelling and shootings from Syria have become near-daily occurrences in recent months.

And there have been sporadic, deadly clashes in the northern port city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But there is no danger of the pope being exposed to either of those potential risks.

During his Friday-Sunday visit, Benedict will be moving only between Beirut -- on the Mediterranean coast and 83 kilometres (51 miles) from Tripoli -- and mountain villages just outside the capital.

He will also be nearly as far from the Syrian border.

Lebanon is a multi-confessional country of some 4.6 million people where Muslims -- Sunnis and Shiites -- make up the majority but with a Christian minority of around 35 percent and a number of other faiths as well.

Among Christians, several eastern churches are in communion with the Holy See, the largest group being the Maronites.

Last month, a Jesuit priest who was recently forced to leave Syria for supporting the anti-Assad uprising, warned that the pope's safety could be at risk.

The pope "must ask for help from a secret service that can guarantee his security, because the Lebanese services are not sufficient in this situation," Father Paolo Dall'Oglio warned.

Dall'Oglio added that Lebanon is fraught with risk because the current government "is in some ways still tied to the Syrian regime."

The Lebanese government is dominated by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which is a close ally and client of the Assad regime.

Lebanon's Sunni Muslim communities largely oppose Assad, while the Alawites, who belong to the same Shiite-offshoot minority as the Syrian leader, are pro-Damascus.

But the Vatican stressed in August that the repercussions of the Syrian crisis and the kidnappings in Lebanon will not affect Benedict's visit, his third to the region since becoming pope in 2005. He traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2009 and Cyprus the following year.

According to Interior Minister Charbel, "every security apparatus will execute its role" to safeguard the first papal visit since the late pope John Paul II came to Lebanon in 1997.

The authorities have already "put the finishing touches" on a special security plan for the visit, which has been under preparation for the past three weeks, Charbel said, refusing to elaborate on the details.

"Members of the intelligence and security forces have arrived from Italy in order to coordinate with one another and get an idea of the precautions that we have taken," he said, stressing that "the security forces will operate in coordination with the private security agencies of the pope."

Maronite Christian Patriarch Bishara Rai told AFP on Thursday that not only the Lebanese state, but also international secret services and Lebanese intelligence agencies, will cooperate to prevent any possible attack.

And Father Abdo Abou Kasm, the visit's media coordinator, said last week that "all Lebanese security organisations are on a state of alert poised to protect His Holiness the Pope."

Referring to what he said was close coordination between Lebanese authorities and the Vatican, he said security had been reinforced and that "all eventualities had been considered... so that this visit will be crowned with success."

Addressing the tensions in the country, Abou Kasm said the "fears surrounding the visit are out of place."

"All the communities welcome the pope's visit, both Muslim and Christian."

On Thursday, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem received a delegation from the organising committee.

Qassem emphasised that he welcomed the visit and that Hezbollah would participate in various receptions and meetings during it.

He urged all Lebanese to welcome the pope to show religious unity "away from any politics."

The pontiff will arrive at Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport on Friday afternoon and travel to Harissa, 29 kilometres (18 miles) to the northeast, where he will be staying.

On Saturday, he will meet President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, as well as Muslim religious leaders and the diplomatic corps at the presidential palace in Beirut.

He will have lunch with eastern patriarchs and bishops at the Armenian Catholic patriarchate in Bzommar, near Harissa, and meet with Lebanese youth at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkerke, another mountain village in the same area.

On Sunday, he will celebrate an open-air mass at the Beirut City Centre Waterfront. He will also unveil the conclusions of a synod of bishops convened in 2010 to examine the future of the Middle East's Christian minority and its relations with Muslims.

The pope returns to Rome on Sunday evening.

Charbel said all roads used by the pope will be closed to cars, and the army has announced that air traffic in the vicinity of the papal residence in Harissa would be forbidden from September 7-17.

The army also warned there would be a "strict application of the decision ... to revoke all permits for carrying weapons in various Lebanese regions except for the bodyguards" of political and religious figures.

blog comments powered by Disqus