Pope Urges Arab Leaders to Work for Peace in Raging

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pope Benedict urged Arab leaders on Sunday at a huge open-air Mass in Lebanon to work for reconciliation in a Middle East riven by Syria’s civil war and blazing with fury over a film mocking the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

“May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East, the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence,” the pope said in a prayer after Mass that organizers said was attended by 350,000 people.

Activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 18-month-old, mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect that grew out of Shi’ite Islam.

ew Christians, who form about 10 percent of Syria’s population, have joined the uprising, fearing that it could bring hostile Islamists to power in a fight raging just 50 km (30 miles) east of Benedict’s Mass in Beirut.

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Addressing worshippers on the Mediterranean seafront, close to the front-line of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, Benedict said Lebanese people “know all too well the tragedy of conflict and…the cry of the widow and the orphan”.

“I appeal to the Arab countries that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person,” the 85-year-old pontiff said.

Peace between warring factions and among the many religious groups in the Middle East has been a central theme of his visit to Lebanon, along with his call to Christians not to leave the region despite war and growing pressure from radical Islamists.

“In a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary,” Benedict said.

The pope has made no reference during his three-day visit to a U.S-made film depicting the Prophet Mohammad which has caused unrest across the Muslim world, including a protest in north Lebanon on Friday in which one person was killed.

SWELTERING

Politicians from all sectors of multi-faith Lebanon attended the Mass, including from the militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah. Leaders of the country’s main religions all assured the Vatican of their support for the visit in advance.

The Mass took place on reclaimed land next to the port without any shade for the crowd, despite temperatures of more than 30 degrees centigrade (86 Fahrenheit).

The altar was shielded from the sun under a canopy, but the pope was seen mopping sweat from his forehead at one point.

Red Cross workers carried away at least two worshippers who fainted from the heat half way through the celebration.

Many in the crowd wore white caps bearing the motto of the visit, “salami o-tikum!” (Arabic for “my peace I give to you”), a phrase the pope, known as ‘Baba’ in Arabic, has repeated in several speeches.

Cedars of Lebanon, the country’s symbol, featured in a white backdrop to the altar where the pope presided over the Mass, and on the white capes worn by prelates of the Maronite Church, the largest of six Christian churches here linked to the Vatican.

Prelates from other Eastern Catholic churches stood out in their distinctive gold or black vestments, in contrast to the green chasuble worn by the pope. Hymns in Arabic added a local touch to the Gregorian and classic Catholic works being sung.

Streets near Beirut’s port were closed to traffic in the morning and soldiers manned main intersections. Three military helicopters buzzed overhead and a navy ship patrolled offshore.

PERFECT TIMING

Worshippers at the Mass were grateful the pope came to Lebanon, where Christians make up about a third of the population. Their community is split into a dozen churches and the Muslims into Sunnis, Shi’ites and Alawites, as well as the Druze whose traditions mix Shi’ism and other influences.

Eli Baalina, 17, a Lebanese Maronite, said the visit “came at a perfect time, when things were heating up a bit”.

“He gave us a chance to stop and think about the bigger things in life,” he said. “It’s a good chance to reflect on the things like sectarianism and extremism, things that we all need to work to change about ourselves in this region.”

A Filipino maid named Julianne, 31, said: “Everyone thinks the Middle East is only about Muslims, but there is a big Christian community and we should celebrate too.”

Several in the crowd were heartened by the pope’s repeated calls for Christians to stay in the Middle East, where war, emigration and discrimination have cut their ranks to 5 percent of the population now compared to 20 percent a century ago.

“His message is to give us pride and encouragement that it is worth the effort to work for coexistence and understanding and to ensure Christians remain here,” said Maronite Silva Mansour, attending the Mass with her husband and month-old baby.

The German-born pontiff conducted the Mass in French and Latin and lay people also offered prayers in Arabic, Armenian, Greek and English.

(Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Above: Pope Benedict XVI stood next to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman as he waved to the crowd at Rafik Hariri international airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday.

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With Muslim Arsonists Fires Still Smoldering, Catholic Pope Offers Prayers for Reconciliation, Religious Freedom

September 15, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI appealed on Saturday for religious freedom in the Middle East, calling it fundamental for stability in a region bloodied by sectarian strife.

Benedict spoke on the second day of his visit to Lebanon, a country with the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East. He arrived amid a wave of violent demonstrations across the Muslim world over an anti-Islam film.

“Let us not forget that religious freedom is a fundamental right from which many other rights stem,” he said, speaking in French to government officials, foreign diplomats and religious leaders at the presidential palace in Mount Lebanon in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Above: Pope Benedict XVI meeting on Saturday with religious authorities in Mount Lebanon. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano, vie Associated Press

He held up Lebanon, which is still rebuilding from a devastating 1975-1990 civil war fought largely on sectarian lines, as an example of coexistence for the region.

He said Christians and Muslims in Lebanon shared the same space — at times in the same family — and asked, “If it is possible in families, why not in entire societies?” Marriages in which husband and wife are from different religious groups are not uncommon in Lebanon.

He said the freedom to practice one’s religion “without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone.”

Above: Pope Benedict XVI stood next to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman as he waved to the crowd at Rafik Hariri international airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday.

The papal visit comes amid soaring sectarian tensions in the region, exacerbated by the conflict in Syria, which is in the throes of an 18-month-old civil war. A predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria, a Sunni-majority country, is fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the cross-fire among rival Islamic groups.

Thousands of Christians have fled areas where heavy fighting has taken place, including the once religiously mixed central city of Homs. Rebels have controlled Homs’s Christian neighborhoods of Hamidiyeh and Bustan al-Diwan since early February, and most of the neighborhoods’ residents have fled.

On Saturday, a Syrian priest from Homs said the Archdiocese of Syriac Catholics in Hamidiyeh was set on fire last week. The motives behind the attack were unclear.

The priest, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said in a telephone interview that the attack took place Thursday. He said residents tried for 14 hours to put out the raging fire because fire engines could not reach the area, which is under rebel control. No further details were available.

He said that around 80,000 Christians used to live in Hamidiyeh but that now only 85 people remained.

In Lebanon, enthusiastic crowds lined the streets and cheered along the 30-kilometer motorcade route to the palace as Benedict went by Saturday in his bulletproof glass vehicle. Soldiers on horseback rode ahead of the car. As the pope arrived in the presidential compound, officials released about 20 white doves.

Above: Pope Benedict XVI in Beirut, Lebanon,  today, September 15, 2012

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pope Benedict urged multi-faith Lebanon on Saturday to be a model of religious peace for the Middle East, as acivil war raged in neighbouring Syria, deepening sectarian divisions.

“Lebanon is called, now more than ever, to be an example,” he told political and religious leaders on the second day of a visit that coincided with violent protests across the Muslim world against a U.S.-made film insulting Islam.

Lebanon – torn apart by a 1975-1990 sectarian civil war – is a religious mosaic of over four million people whose Muslim majority includes Sunnis, Shi’ites and Alawites. Christians, over one-third of the population, are divided into more than a dozen churches, six of them linked to the Vatican.

The German-born pontiff, 85, delivered his morning speech in French at the presidential palace after meeting President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite.

At a rally later in the day, he told thousands of cheering young people not to let discrimination, unemployment and instability drive them abroad and reminded young Syrian Christians in the crowd that “the pope has not forgotten you.”

Above: Pope Benedict is presented with a gift as he arrives at Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut Sept. 14 to begin his three-day visit to Lebanon. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo)

Addressing young Muslims also there, he said “together with young Christians, you are the future of this fine country and of the Middle East in general. Seek to built it up together!”

Peace between warring factions and among the many religious groups in the Middle East has been a central theme of Benedict’s visit, along with his call to Christians not to leave the region despite war and growing pressure from radical Islamists.

Amira Chabchoul, a Muslim onlooker outside the palace said: “We came to support the pope and also get support from him, because our experience has been that when we listen to him, we are touched and we are helped in our lives.”

CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS

On Friday, protesters against the anti-Islam film dodged gunfire and tear gas to hurl stones at security forces in Lebanon’s Tripoli where one demonstrator was killed. Protesters chanted “We don’t want the pope” and “No more insults”

A Vatican spokesman said the pope was being kept informed of protests against the film, circulated on the Internet under several titles including “Innocence of Muslims”.

Benedict began his visit on Friday with a call for an end to all arms supplies to Syria, where the tiny Christian minority fears reprisals if Islamists come to power at the end of the bloody insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.

He also described the Arab Spring movement as a “cry for freedom” that was a positive development as long as it ensured tolerance for all religions.

Coptic Christians, about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have come under repeated attack by Islamists since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak. They worry the new government will strengthen Islamic law in the new constitution.

In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, hardline Salafis have brought a new religious intolerance against fellow Muslims such as Sufis, whose shrines they are destroying as heretical.

“If we want peace, let us defend life,” Benedict said. “This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life.”

FATEFUL CIRCUMSTANCES

The pope held a private meeting with leaders of the Sunni, Shi’ite and Alawite Muslim communities and of the Druze, an offshoot of Shi’ism with other influences.

Chief Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the supreme Sunni leader, praised him for visiting “in these fateful circumstances that Lebanon and the region are living through” and stressed the common goals of both faiths “in the whole Arab world”.

“The flight of Christians hurts us Muslims because it means we cannot live with others,” he said. Emigration, wars and a low birth rate have cut Christian ranks to 5 percent of the Middle Eastern population compared with 20 percent a century ago.

Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai told the pope that young Christians in the Middle East were suffering political and social crises that tested their faith.

“Their concerns grow in the face of … rising religious fundamentalism that believes neither in the right to be different nor in the freedom of conscience or religion, and that resorts to violence as the only way to reach its goals,” he said.

At a youth rally outside the Maronite Patriarchate on a mountaintop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Benedict said Middle Eastern Christians had the honour of living in the region where Jesus was born and Christianity began.

Benedict urged the region’s young Christians not to “taste the sweet bitterness of emigration”.

About 250 Chaldean and Syriac Christians from Iraq waved Iraqi and Kurdish flags as the pope arrived with Rai in his gleaming white popemobile. A giant rosary made of balloons floated above the waiting crowd.

“We flew here three days ago to see him,” said Nuhaya Bassam, 33, from Baghdad. “It’s definitely worth the hassle, to us, he’s God’s representative on Earth.”

“If anyone needs him right now, it’s the Christians of the Middle east,” said an Irbil man named Hani, 24.

A Syrian student priest, Khudr Samaan, said he was thrilled to see the pope and he wanted to tell fellow Syrians not to be afriad.

“My family couldn’t make it here because of the difficult conditions,” he said. “I don’t think I could make it back to them if I tried, either, so I’m stuck here a while.”

(Writing by Tom Heneghan; Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Above: Just hours before the Pope’s arrival in Lebanon, protesters attacked American fast food restaurants after Friday prayers, pouring petrol on the restaurants and setting them on fire in the northeastern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday Sept. 14, 2012. According to security officials no one was hurt in the attack which is part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo)

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