The pope hopes to advance the church's sometimes difficult relationship with Islam
Posters welcoming Pope Benedict XVI decorate the Christian port city of Jounieh, north of Beirut, on September 12. The pope arrives on Friday for a three-day visit to Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country riven by sectarian tensions as fighting rages next door in Syria. © Patrick Baz - AFP
The pope hopes to advance the church's sometimes difficult relationship with Islam
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Albion Land, AFP
Last updated: September 14, 2012

Pope brings peace message to Lebanon as Mideast burns

Pope Benedict XVI issued a call for reconciliation between Christians, Jews and Muslims on Friday at the start of a three-day visit to Lebanon, as a deadly Islamist protest marred his arrival.

Stressing the key element of his visit, he urged religious leaders in the Middle East to work to "root out" fundamentalism, which he said "indiscriminately and fatally touches" believers of all three religions.

His message, drawn up long before he left Rome, came as a protester died and 25 other were hurt in clashes with police after Islamists angered by a US-made film mocking Islam torched a KFC restaurant in the northern city of Tripoli.

Among other slogans, the demonstrators in Tripoli chanted: "O Muslims, shout it out, we don't want the pope."

At the same time, Islamists at a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, also infuriated over the film, called for Muslims to turn their arms against President Barack Obama and other Americans.

Even before his plane touched down, Benedict was attacked by a Qatar-based group of Muslim scholars, who accused him of seeking to sow divisions between the two religions.

But in Beirut, a crowd of dignitaries and around 100 cheering supporters welcomed the pontiff at Rafiq Hariri International Airport, one holding up a banner that read "Joy to Lebanon. The pope has arrived."

The 85-year-old pope was greeted by President Michel Sleiman, the Middle East's only Christian head of state, and a 21-gun salute, as church bells rang out countrywide.

Addressing the Lebanese people, he said: "The celebrated Lebanese equilibrium which wishes to continue to be a reality will continue through the goodwill and commitment of all Lebanese.

"Only then will it serve as a model to the inhabitants of the whole region and of the entire world."

Lebanon, however, is riven by sectarian tensions, as fighting rages next door in Syria, with sharp differences among Christians and Muslims over support for President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The pope said he came to Lebanon as "a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men."

Later on Friday, Benedict unveiled a series of recommendations to Christians in the region that emerged from a synod of bishops he convened in 2010 to address their future and their relations with other faiths, particularly Islam.

In those "apostolic exhortations," he told the Christian minority not to fear for their future.

"It is here and now that we are called to celebrate the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, service over domination, humility over pride and unity over division."

The exhortations also back the concept of "healthy secularism," reject violence and stress the need to struggle against anything that that would reduce the region to having just one religion.

They also say that "religious fundamentalism ... seeks to take power for political ends, at times using violence, over the individual conscience and over religion."

The pope appealed "to all the religious leaders of the Middle East to endeavour, by their example and their teaching, to do everything possible to uproot this threat, which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions."

But before his call for reconciliation, a group of Muslim scholars based in Qatar charged the pope with spreading fear of Muslims among Christians.

In a Thursday statement, the International Union of Muslim Scholars accused him of "fuelling sedition between partners (in Lebanon)" by "planning to sign an apostolic exhortation that contains dangerous messages and ideas."

It claimed the messages include a "warning from the Islamisation of the society and spreading fear among Christians from political Islam in the region.

The pope aims to reach out to an estimated 13 million Catholics in the Middle East, asking them to work for peace and democracy alongside moderate Islamists, in a period fraught with fears of a rise of fundamentalism.

Those concerns are particularly poignant as the region is rocked by the deadly violence over the anti-Islamist film that cost the lives of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans on Tuesday.

He is expected to call on Lebanon's Christians to unite, divided as they are not only towards the regime in Damascus but also over a political vision for their own country.

Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan has said he hopes the pope will also use the trip to call for negotiations in Syria.

In remarks to reporters on his plane to Beirut, he said "arms imports (into Syria) must stop once and for all, because without arms imports, war cannot continue."

Lebanese security forces are on high alert for the visit, and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said this week that it "will be one of the most successful visits in the history of modern Lebanon."

On Saturday, the pope will meet Sleiman, a member of the Maronite Catholic church, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, as well as Muslim religious leaders and the diplomatic corps in Beirut.

After lunch with Eastern patriarchs and bishops in Bzommar, near the village of Harissa where he is staying, he will meet Lebanese youth at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkerke, another village in the same area.

On Sunday, he will celebrate an open-air mass at Beirut City Centre Waterfront before returning to Rome.

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