BEIRUT: Lebanese from various religious backgrounds are eagerly awaiting Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to their country and hope that the trip could help bring peace to the nation.
“The pope can try to ease any religion’s collective tension,” said Sawsan Darwaza, a theater and film director who said she was very supportive of the visit even though she is not Christian.
“It’s very thoughtful and important that he chose Lebanon,” Darwaza added while walking in Gemmayzeh.
“The pope can say something to cause the people of the Middle East to be tolerant.”
Vatican officials have said the pope decided to proceed with his visit to Lebanon, the first by a pontiff in 15 years, despite the conflict raging in Syria. They say his main message will be one of religious coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
The pontiff will be in the country for three days and will visit a number of Christian sites and villages. He will also hold meetings with prominent Muslim, Christian and political leaders.
The last papal visit to Lebanon was in 1997, when Pope John Paul II came to the country.
A number of people said the pope, as a global figurehead, would bring hope for peace and reconciliation between disparate groups in the country.
In addition to Christian political groups, who have heralded the pope’s visit as a seminal moment for their community, Hezbollah has come out strongly supportive of the visit as an opportunity to renew dialogue and strengthen Lebanon’s pluralism.
Other religious leaders, including Salafists, have either endorsed the trip or expressed tolerance of it.
“All the region’s people respect the pope – it’s not about religion,” said 20-year-old Alaa Barakat. “He is not only a religious man.”
Others spoke about the significance of the leader of the Catholic Church taking the time to visit Lebanon, a relatively small country.
“Despite everything happening in Lebanon at the moment, the pope’s visit is like a puff of oxygen. We hope this visit makes people remember that this is a civilized country that important figures can visit,” said Tanya, who was walking down the street in Hamra. “It’s not about what the pope does; it’s about how the Lebanese people respond. Hopefully, he’ll be safe here.”
Many said they were apprehensive that the pope’s visit was taking place during a tumultuous political time and amid heightened religious tensions fueled by the conflict in Syria.
The killings in Libya and protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the region over an anti-Islam movie were a cause of concern for some, who worried a visit by pope to the Middle East could exacerbate religious tensions.
Security will be bolstered around the country during his visit, particularly along the pope’s traveling route.
Meanwhile, others saw the pontiff’s visit as an opportunity for unity.
Christians from around the region are expected to visit Lebanon to see the pope during his visit.
“I’m Jordanian, and I have many Christian friends there. Most of them are coming to Lebanon to see the pope,” said Rima. “It will make people want to come to Lebanon. I’d like to be present as well. I don’t know about others, but I wouldn’t miss it. He should be safe here.”
Balsan Hakkani, a store manager in Downtown Beirut, agreed. “I think it’s [the visit] very good and it’s coming in a very critical situation.”