BKIRKI/BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI said he was moved by the courage of Syrian youth and called for interfaith unity to end violence throughout the Middle East as he addressed a large youth gathering in Bkirki.
“I am moved by your courage and I pray for you always, and I want to tell you that the pope never forgets you,” Benedict said, addressing thousands of young people of different nationalities.
“The pope is saddened by your hardships. You are in my prayers,” Benedict added.
The pope’s comments came at sunset in the mountain seat of the Maronite patriarchate and at the end of the second day of his three-day visit to Lebanon, during which he has been feted as a man of peace and champion of religious tolerance. His visit also comes during a period of religious-minded anger across the region that has led to a number of violent incidents.
Dressed in black and white, a Christian-Muslim choir performed a selection of songs from both faiths in a symbol of unity. Throngs of young people gathered along the main path into Bkirki, making a sea of yellow and white as they furiously waved the Vatican flag.
Balloons arranged in the shape of rosary beads were suspended over the stage, and Christian groups performed dances for the pontiff, the third Catholic pope to visit Lebanon, as people sang for hours ahead of his arrival.
When the pope arrived to the stage in Bkirki and raised both hands to greet his supporters, the crowd reached a fever pitch of flag waving, clapping and cheering.
At the address the pope continued with his message of coexistence and religious tolerance. The pontiff said violence that has swept the region could come to an end through interfaith unity.
“It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together to put an end to violence in the Middle East,” said the pope, who held discussions earlier in the day with Lebanon’s various religious leaders.
He reiterated his praise of Lebanon’s “beautiful coexistence” and asked Muslim youths to work with their fellow Christians.
During the ceremony, Benedict urged Christians not to abandon their land, and to take an active role in their country. “Unemployment and dangers should not force you to migrate for an uncertain future. Act as the makers of your country’s future and play your role in society and the church,” the pope said.
“It is not easy to forgive but God’s forgiveness should give you the ability to do so because reconciliation and forgiveness pave the way for peace,” he said, calling on Christians to respect and love others regardless of their religious or cultural differences.
The pope also urged youth to reject superficiality and love of money, mentioning during his address many of the struggles youth face today.
“You know you cannot worship God and money at the same time,” Benedict added.
Patriarch Beshara Rai, who accompanied Benedict in the popemobile to Bkirki, kicked off the ceremony with a brief speech in which he warned against the rise of religious extremism, which he said leads to violence and a loss of faith among youth.
“Today the youth are suffering from political, social, economic and cultural crises which affect their faith and lead to a loss of their Christian identity,” Rai said.
“The fears of the youths are aggravated when faced with the phenomenon of religious extremism, which does not allow intellectual or religious differences but encourages violence as a means to achieve goals,” he added.
Fadi Gemayel, 20, said he was inspired by the pope’s speech and particularly taken with the more social and less political aspects of his remarks. Gemayel said the pope’s call for youth to cultivate friendships and respect for the body were meaningful to him.
“The speech was very thoughtful,” he said.
The pope and the day’s event impressed many of the young people who turned out. Some of attendees didn’t speak French but came in order to be in the pope’s presence.
Everything about the pope’s words moved Elias Khalil, 28, who said the pope could do no wrong. “Jesus speaks through him,” he said.
Yousef Zaouk, a church volunteer, said he felt the pontiff’s words were important for the community of Christians, particularly faithful young people. “This was a very important visit for the youth of the church,” he said.
The pope signed the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East Friday in a ceremony at St. Paul Basilica in Harissa, north of Beirut.
There he called on Christians not to be afraid and to brave the difficulties facing them in the region.