BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI arrived at the Baabda Presidential Palace Saturday amid the cheers of thousands of Lebanese who lined the streets to greet the pontiff and receive his blessing.
"We love you, pope," shouted the crowds, waving Lebanese and Vatican flags as well as banners welcoming the Holy See.
Onlookers and well-wishers stood behind a security barrier adorned with Lebanese and Vatican flags. Several white triumphal arches extended from one side of the street to the other.
As the motorcade approached, people all along the route pressed in for a closer look, some showering the convoy with confetti.
The pope, sitting in the Popemobile, waved at the crowds, who lined the street from the Sayyad roundabout all the way up to the hilltop presidential palace in suburban Baabda, four kilometers away.
The papal motorcade, escorted by a presidential guard on horseback, was also greeted by dabke dancers, who included children. The dancers – dressed in traditional Lebanese costume – were allowed to perform on the street itself, a couple of meters away from the approaching Popemobile.
The crowds had gathered along the streets in response to a call by President Michel Sleiman.
A statement by Baabda Presidential Palace said Sleiman “urges all citizens to gather starting 8 a.m. [Saturday] along the street leading to the Presidential Palace through which the Popemobile carrying the great visitor will pass, in order to catch a glimpse of [the pope] and receive his blessing.”
Upon arrival at Baabda Palace, the pope held separate closed-door meetings with Sleiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati as well as Lebanon's top religious leaders.
Grand Mufti of Lebanon Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani stressed in a written message he delivered to the pope that "any attack on any Christian citizen is an attack on Islam."
Qabbani added, "Muslims and Christians make up one nation and have equal rights and duties.”
Meanwhile, political leaders flocked to the Presidential Palace for a broad meeting with the pontiff in the May 25 Salon.
The pope arrived in Lebanon Friday on a three-day historic visit amid turmoil in the Middle East.
While at the palace, the pontiff will also hold separate meetings with the religious leaders of the Muslim community, members of the government, the diplomatic corps and representatives of the cultural world.
From Baabda, the pope headed to the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate in Bzommar for a lunch to be attended by patriarchs of Christian denominations as well as bishops, including members of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.
At 6 p.m., Benedict will meet a group of youth in Bkirki, seat of the Maronite Church.
On Friday, the pope called for peace and reconciliation between the peoples of the Middle East, while denouncing religious fundamentalism as “a falsification of religion.”
His visit came amid deadly clashes rage in Syria and an outburst of violence in several Arab countries over an anti-Islam film.
The pope urged a halt to arms imports to Syria which he said were a “grave sin.”
The importation of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons the war could not continue,” he said. “Instead of importing weapons, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas of peace and creativity and find solutions to accept each other with our differences.”
The pope also said he was not afraid to visit Lebanon and described the Arab Spring uprisings that have already removed four long-serving dictators as “positive.”