HARISSA, Lebanon: Several hundred visitors from across Lebanon welcomed Pope Benedict XVI with prayers and a standing ovation at Saint Paul’s Basilica in Harissa Friday, expressing hope that the pontiff would bless both the country with his message of peace and reconciliation.
The pope arrived in Harissa on time at 6 p.m. to sign the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East, and was greeted by Lebanese and Vatican flags as well as banners bearing the word “peace” in multiple languages.
Gathered opposite the church on chairs set out for the event, visitors said the pope’s visit was a sign that Christians would retain a presence in Lebanon despite their uncertain future in the rest of the region.
“If Christians remain here [in Lebanon], the whole region will become better and different,” said Tony Haddad, who came to catch a glimpse of the pope from the nearby town of Bzommar.
Haddad, who described the visit as historic, said that Vatican’s concern for the people of Lebanon and the region means it has blessed the country and will not abandon it, despite unrest in the Middle East.
“I hope this land will be blessed once again, just as it was blessed by his predecessor Pope John Paul II,” Haddad said, sitting near the church with his wife and two children.
“This visit also affects my life and my family in a great way, we are lucky to see His Holiness,” he added.
Standing next to a poster painted with the word “peace” in Arabic, English, Armenian and a number of other languages, Alain Barake said that he came all the way from the Bekaa to watch the pope deliver his speech on the Middle East.
“Apart from affecting myself and my family in a great way, the pope’s appreciation for Lebanon is an important sign to the youth of this country that they should let go of their fears and return to the Church,” said 25-year-old Barake.
“For Christian leaders to visit Lebanon twice in [a span of] 15 years means this country is blessed and is important to Christians around the world,” he said.
According to Barake, the pope’s message is mainly aimed at Lebanese Christian youth who he called divided and unconnected to spirituality.
“I hope the youth would return to their roots and return to spirituality by going to the Church,” Barake said.
The several hundred strong crowd at Harissa was small in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who are expected to attend the pope’s Sunday Mass at Beirut’s Waterfront.
However, a large number of high-ranking Christian, Muslim and Druze figures attended Friday’s service.
The logistics of the pope’s visit have been closely coordinated between the Lebanese Army, the visit’s Central Coordination Committee and the Presidential Guard.
Despite this, dozens of Lebanese and foreign journalists were barred from covering the signing ceremony – considered one of the key events of his three-day visit to the country.
Escorted to a nearby one-story building, journalists were told by the Army that they could not leave the building or capture the pope’s arrival on film.
Instead of arriving in his famous “popemobile,” the pontiff drew up to Saint Paul’s Basilica in President Michel Sleiman’s black Mercedes-Benz limousine.
As he stepped out of the car, Pope Benedict XVI turned to the crowd and waved before accompanying Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai and other religious leaders to the steps of the church, the six-decade old Melkite Greek Catholic basilica.
The church is only meters from Harissa’s Our Lady of Lebanon statue and the Papal embassy, where the pope will stay for the duration of his trip.