BKIRKI, Lebanon: During his visit to Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI will call for putting an end to the violence in neighboring Syria and that arming of both sides in the conflict cease, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Lebanese politicians called on their supporters to hold mass rallies to welcome the pontiff.
“The pope will definitely call for putting an end to the cycle of violence in Syria and stop any financial or armed support to both the Syrian regime and opposition,” Rai said ahead of the visit of the pontiff who is due in Lebanon Friday.
Activists say more than 23,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis began in March last year. Syria's uprising began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime but has since morphed into a civil war in the face of a brutal government crackdown.
Rai depicted the papal visit as a call for peace in the Middle East, a call for the separation of religion from the state, for building democracy, and the acceptance of the other.
“The Arab Spring we want is the one that will enhance Muslim-Christian co-existence,” Rai told reporters in Bkirki, seat of the Maronite Church.
“Our hearts and the land are eagerly ready to receive the pontiff, who comes to Lebanon as a visitor to all the countries in the Middle East,” he added, noting that a meeting will be held in the presence of the Catholic patriarchs and bishops in the Middle East in Lebanon in December to tackle the implementation of the apostolic exhortation.
"All Arab peoples and others have the right to demand reforms, and we are with them," said Rai, who leads one of the most influential Christian communities in the Middle East.
"War is not launched by Islam or Christianity, but by states, troublemakers or mercenaries" and "Islam and Christianity should unite over values in order to lay down the foundations for a true Arab Spring" of peace and reconciliation, he said.
The patriarch, who spoke in Arabic, insisted in response to a question in Italian that the only path to democracy is through dialogue.
"If someone wants democracy, he should know that it cannot be achieved through violence," according to a translation from the Italian.
Turning to the deadly violence that has hit Libya and Egypt in recent days, the patriarch said he firmly condemned the anti-Islamic film that touched it off, calling it a "cancer."
He said it is an "attack on all religions" and "we strongly call for the film to be withdrawn."
The Maronite church, whose roots lie in fourth century Syria, is the largest Christian community in Lebanon and is in communion with the Holy See.
Rai was speaking a day before the pontiff arrives in Lebanon for a three-day visit in which he is expected to reiterate his many calls for reconciliation in the Middle East.
On Sunday, Pope Benedict said: "My apostolic trip to Lebanon, and by extension to the whole of the Middle East, is taking place under the sign of peace.
"The commitment to dialogue and reconciliation must be the priority for all parties involved," he said at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, calling for the international community to support such efforts.
"Even if it seems difficult to find solutions to the different problems, we cannot resign ourselves to violence and the exacerbation of tensions," said the 85-year-old German pontiff.
Syria has been embroiled in deadly turmoil since March 2011, when what started out as peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad took off on the heels of the Arab Spring.
The conflict turned increasingly deadly. Today, Syrian rebels and the army are battling each other on the streets of the country's major cities, and activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed since the uprising started.
Politicians in Lebanon called for mass attendance of their supporters during the pope’s visit.
Future parliamentary bloc leader MP Fouad Siniora said his group would be at the forefront of participants in the welcoming ceremony of the pope at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut.
“The papal visit is a great honor for us, it confirms that Lebanon is a country of coexistence,” Siniora said after a visit to Bkirki, where he met with Rai.
Siniora headed a delegation of Future Movement MPs.
Asserting that the pope’s visit comes at the right timing, amid the regional changes and the Arab Spring in different countries, Siniora said: “We are a country that is being violated daily by the Israeli enemy and the Syrian regime. There is no doubt that we in Lebanon need someone to stand with us in face of hurricanes blowing around us.”
“Both Muslims and Christians will benefit from the visit,” Siniora said, stressing Lebanon’s role as a model of coexistence in the Middle East.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, for his part, called on all the Lebanese people to rally to welcome the pope and take part in the masses and popular ceremonies during his trip.
“The pope’s visit in light of the current regional changes is a message to reassure the Christians in the Middle East about their future and a blessing to our country,” Geagea said in an LF statement.
The three-day-long visit by Pope Benedict XVI will be the first by a Catholic pope in 15 years since the landmark visit of Pope John Paul II to Lebanon in 1997.
Political, social and religious preparations are under way to receive the pope while Lebanese authorities have imposed strict security measures throughout the country. - With AFP