BEIRUT: Many Shiite and Sunni clerics, including Salafist leaders, are welcoming Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to Lebanon, and expressing hope that it will strengthen coexistence and help allay Christian fears over their fate in a region in tumult.
Among those looking forward to the thee-day papal visit is Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Rashid Qabbani, who told The Daily Star that the concerns of the Christians in the Middle East will be a topic of discussion.
“We will work to eliminate the concerns that have arisen from the changes in the Arab world,” the grand mufti said, noting that Muslims and Christians alike have concerns about the rapid changes in the region.
“The current situation in the Arab world is still unstable. Until we get a clearer idea of what the future will hold, we will also have concerns,” Qabbani said, adding that he hoped the pope’s visit would help reassure Christians and enhance their cooperation with Muslims in Lebanon and the region.
Qabbani said the most important thing was that Christians and Muslims shouldn’t feel as though they are on “separate boats.”
“The regimes in the Arab world are changing, and we all want to have security and equality and justice. I hope the pope’s visit will reflect that,” he said.
Pope Benedict XVI will meet with Muslim leaders Saturday morning at Baabda Palace.
For his part, Shiite cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hasan al-Amin described the pope’s trip as a “blessed visit,” linking it to late Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lebanon in 1997.
“It is a sign that Lebanon has a great place in the Vatican,” Amin said.
The scholar said that the impact of the pope’s visit would be felt not only by Christians but by all Lebanese.
“The Christians are a major part of the Lebanese structure, and the pope’s visit emphasizes coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the country,” he said.
Echoing Qabbani, Amin said the visit would be reassuring to Christians, as a minority in the Arab world, in the face of concerns over the Arab Spring.
The pope arrives Friday and during his visit he will sign the apostolic exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which convened in 2010 to discuss the situation of Christians in the Levant.
Breaking this nearly unanimous welcome from Lebanese Muslim leaders is Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Tripoli-based cleric who has come out against the papal visit over remarks Pope Benedict made in 2006 linking Islam to violence.
“The pope did not apologize for insulting remarks he made against Prophet Mohammad and Islam in Germany in 2006,” Bakri said.
During a lecture in September 2006, the pope quoted 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II. “The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,” Benedict said. “He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’”
But the Vatican later said that the pope had not intended to offend Muslims with the remarks, and during a 2009 visit to Jordan the pope said that he is proud to visit a Muslim society.
“What the pope said about Islam, whether personally or quoting a Byzantine king, is a reason to oppose his visit,” Bakri said.
Bakri said he would support demonstrations to protest the pope’s visit, but ruled out the possibility that violence would occur. “Personally I do not have any group [that could take action].”
Salafist Sheikh Salem Rafei, deputy head of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, hailed the pope’s visit to Lebanon as a sign of increasing stability in the country.
“The Christians are a major component of the Lebanese fabric, and it is their right to be enthusiastic about their pope’s visit,” the preacher said.
Asked if Pope Benedict’s visit is linked to the recent rise of the Islamist parties to power in parts of the Arab world, such as Egypt and Tunisia, Rafei said: “I think this development is positive for Christians, especially because Islamist parties respect all religions.”
Lebanon’s Jaafarite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan also hailed the visit, which he hoped would “reunite the Lebanese and revive coexistence among them.”
“Lebanon has always been the cradle of religious civilization where the two holy books, the Quran and the Bible, agree on the important value of humans. That is why the pope’s visit should enhance such partnership between Muslims and Christians,” Qabalan said.
In a similar vein, prominent Shiite cleric Sayyed Ali Fadlallah, son of late prominent Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, said the pope’s visit would affirm values shared by Muslims and Christians in Lebanon and the Arab world.
“We welcome the visit of the pope as an occasion to affirm the points of convergence between Muslims and Christians,” Fadlallah said.
He also said that the visit would help Muslims and Christians in the region to unite to confront challenges, particularly Israel’s attempts “to judaize” Islamic and Christian holy sites in occupied Jerusalem.
“On the Lebanese level, the visit boosts national unity which we badly need,” he added.
Fadlallah said it is necessary that Islamic-Christian dialogue goes beyond courtesy to address actual problems.
“It should work on addressing fears that Christians might have of Muslims or Muslims of Christians or the distorted image of Islam that might emerge,” he explained.
Also welcoming the upcoming visit was Sidon-based Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir, who said that anything that “pleases our Christian partners,” would make him happy.
“Of course I consider it a very normal visit ... he is welcome in Lebanon, which is a country with various sects,” Assir said. “The pope is the head of the church ... Christians are our major partners, and it is their right that he visits them.” – With additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh