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Rival politicians to cool rhetoric for pope visit
Cars drive past a billboard depicting Pope Benedict XVI, during preparations for his visit to Lebanon, at the main airport road in Beirut, September 11, 2012. (REUTERS/Sharif Karim)
Cars drive past a billboard depicting Pope Benedict XVI, during preparations for his visit to Lebanon, at the main airport road in Beirut, September 11, 2012. (REUTERS/Sharif Karim)
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BEIRUT: Politicians from across the nation’s divided political spectrum are hopeful that this weekend’s visit of Pope Benedict XVI will have a lasting impact and subdue fears of the Syrian crisis spilling over the border.

Rarely do both sides agree on an event of national significance, but politicians from the March 14 coalition and March 8 groups say that the pope will be welcomed by all Lebanese, describing his visit as historic for Lebanon and the Middle East.

Although some doubt the celebratory mood will last beyond Sunday – the third and final day of the pope’s visit – rival sides also say they hope political parties will be able to find common ground to keep the positive momentum alive.

“This is a very significant visit for Lebanon; the pope’s visit should open the door for Lebanese to come together and build this country with faith, hope and values of peace,” Kataeb (Phalange) MP Elie Marouni told The Daily Star.

But Marouni said that it was unlikely that positive repercussions of the pope’s visit would have a lasting effect in the face of widespread arms.

“We hope that the effects will last, but unfortunately we can’t expect a lot from the visit given the extent to which arms have spread into the hands of many Lebanese,” Marouni added.

Meanwhile, preparations for the pope’s three-day visit have reached their final stages, according to Central Coordination Committee’s general coordinator, Father Marwan Tabet.

“Everything is ready, we are just doing fine-tuning and awaiting his holiness, who will have nine different stops during his three-day visit to Lebanon,” Tabet said.

Benedict XVI is expected to deliver a Mass to at least 500,000 people in Beirut Sunday morning.

Welcoming the pope’s visit, Hezbollah MP Walid Sukariyeh said that it would be “protocol” for rival camps to temper political rhetoric.

“At least escalatory political rhetoric will be put aside and everyone, all Lebanese, will welcome the pope because this is part of official protocol,” said Sukaryieh.

“There is only one extremist group in the north that is against this important historic visit and everyone else welcomes the pope,” he added.

The pope, who will arrive Friday morning, will be greeted in an official ceremony at the Rafik Hariri International Airport and will later head to Mount Lebanon’s Harissa to sign the apostolic exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.

Signing of the document will be followed by the pope’s most important speech, according to Father Tabet.

Although most spiritual leaders have voiced support to the pope’s visit to Lebanon, Tripoli-based preacher Sheikh Omar Bakri has come out against the visit over remarks the pope made in 2006 linking Islam to violence.

Sukariyeh, however, believes that the papal visit to Lebanon will encourage peace and harmony among the Christians and Muslims in the country.

According to the Baalbek MP, the pope’s visit is a message to both Christians and Muslims in Lebanon to unite against the common dangers they face.

“Like the message of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, the pope’s visit is also of partnership and love ... I ask the March 14 coalition: If there is anyone still boycotting Rai’s message ... Are they also boycotting the pope?” Sukariyeh asked.

The pope’s predecessor, John Paul II, was welcomed by a crowd of a million people in Downtown Beirut in 1997, a year after a brief war between Lebanon and Israel, but today’s political bickering and sporadic clashes were absent in 1997.

Amal Movement MP Ghazi Zeaiter described the visit as “historic,” and predicts that it will have a great impact on the nation.

“This is a gift to Lebanon. The pope is coming to bless our country and he will carry the message of peace,” Zeaiter said.

“Our interests as Muslims and Christians should be the same in this country – we have one common enemy and that should unite us all.”

In a similar vein, Future Movement MP Ammar Houri said the visit would affect the entire region.

“We all know that the region is going through turmoil and this visit is timely and will have a strong impact on everyone,” he said.

The Beirut MP also said that all politicians are trying to cool the usually heated rhetoric ahead of the papal visit to Lebanon.

“I believe this is normal as the visit gets closer – everyone is contributing toward calming down the rhetoric.”

Echoing Houri, Farid al-Khazen, a Free Patriotic Movement MP, said the visit has a regional objective.

“[The visit] comes to address the situation of Christians in the Middle East and their relation with Muslims – this definitely brings a positive atmosphere to the country.

“When the pope declares Lebanon as a country with a message, we as Lebanese should be up for it,” the FPM lawmaker said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 12, 2012, on page 3.
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