BEIRUT: The committees tasked with making preparations for the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI announced Wednesday that they were putting the finishing touches on plans, while providing instructions for those who wish to participate in the weekend’s events. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Mikati hailed the pope’s visit as historic and expressed hope that it would signal a return to partnership.
“All Lebanese, Christians and Muslims are awaiting his holiness’s arrival on Friday and all trust that his visit will bring good and peace as well as a return to true partnership between the peoples of the East,” Mikati said at the start of Wednesday’s Cabinet session.
“This session is being held two days before the historic event which we will witness for Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit to announce the apostolic exhortation for the Christians of the Middle East.”
Bishop Camille Zeidan, president of the Church’s Central Coordination Committee, said that “preparations for the visit are almost complete.”
Speaking at a news conference held in Beirut by the ministerial committee and the church committee assigned to the organize the visit, Zeidan outlined a number of ways members of the public can participate in the visit.
“We call on churches to ring their bells at 1:45 p.m. [Friday, corresponding to the time of the pope’s arrival in Beirut],” he said, “and ask that at 8 p.m. that evening Lebanese place candles of white and yellow on their balconies in welcome of the pope.”
Pope Benedict XVI will sign the apostolic exhortation Friday evening at St. Paul’s Basilica in Harissa.
Environment Minister Nazim Khouri, a member of the ministerial committee, described the signing of the document as particularly significant given the regional turmoil.
“There is no doubt that the fires ranging around us and their implications make this apostolic exhortation a historic event,” Khouri said.
“The call to adopt dialogue and commit to reconciliation which the pope made a few days ago is the needed mechanism to begin implementing the apostolic exhortation.”
The signing of the apostolic exhortation comes two years after a Synod of the Middle East.
“The Lebanese are being called on, now more than ever, to be deserving of the trust that his holiness has placed in them,” Khouri added.
The pope will meet Saturday morning with President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker Nabih Berri in Baabda and with Muslim leaders, including ministers, lawmakers and intellectuals.
In the afternoon, the pope will have lunch at the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate and in the evening he will meet with youth in Bkirki.
Sunday will see an open-air mass at Beirut’s Waterfront. “We hope there will be a large turnout to receive the pope, who will arrive in his popemobile from Jounieh,” Zeidan said.
“We call on participants to take their seats before his holiness arrives,” he added, advising members of the public to arrive by 8 a.m. and officials before 9 a.m. Mass will begin at 10 a.m. and conclude at 12:30 p.m. Only Lebanese and Vatican flags will be flown at the mass.
“Preparations for the visit started last March and a large number of people have worked to make the visit successful,” Zeidan said.
For his part, Col. Mohammad Ayoubi, who heads Beirut’s traffic police, explained the measures that will be taken for the visit.
Cars will be prohibited from parking from noon to 10 p.m. and will not be allowed to drive after 6 p.m. on Abdallah Yafi Avenue from the Barbir bridge to the Adlieh tunnel, as well as the Damascus Road from the Buick company to St. Joseph University. Traffic will be diverted to side streets.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Omar Bakri has come out against the papal visit over comments Pope Benedict XVI made in 2006 linking Islam to violence. Most Muslim leaders in the country have welcomed the visit.
In response to a question on why the church would not issue a strongly worded response to Tripoli-based Bakri, Zeidan said it was not the job of the church to silence people. “We live in a democratic state, and we are not oppressive and will not silence people. We all know Sheikh Bakri’s past but the church does not call for legal prosecution – that’s for the state to decide.”
The bishop also stressed that the church does not involve itself in politics or take part in disputes.
Patriarch Beshara Rai will hold a news conference Thursday in Bkirki, detailing the pope’s visit and offering advice on how the public can take part in Sunday’s mass.