BKIRKI, Lebanon: Pope Benedict XVI will call for an end to the violence in Syria and a halt to the armament of both sides in the conflict during his visit to Lebanon over the weekend, 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 a stop to any financial or armed support to both the Syrian regime and opposition,” Rai said ahead of the visit of the pope, who is due to arrive in Lebanon Friday.
Activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed since Syria’s crisis began in March last year. The uprising began with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad’s regime but descended into civil war in the face of a brutal government crackdown.
Rai described the papal visit as a call for peace in the Middle East and a call for the separation of religion from the state, for building democracy and for the acceptance of the other.
“The Arab Spring we want is the one that will enhance Muslim-Christian coexistence,” Rai told reporters in Bkirki, the 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 Lebanon in the presence of the Catholic patriarchs and bishops in the Middle East 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 ... Islam and Christianity should unite in values in order to lay down the foundations for a true Arab Spring” of peace and reconciliation, he said.
The patriarch, who spoke mainly 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,” Rai said in Italian.
Turning to the violence that has hit the capitals of Libya and Egypt in recent days, the patriarch said he firmly condemned the anti-Islam film that set 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 He said it is an “attack on all religions” and “we strongly call for the film to be withdrawn.”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 the Levant, is the largest Christian community in Lebanon and is in communion with the Holy See.
Rai was speaking a day before the pope arrives in Lebanon for a three-day visit in which he is expected to emphasize religious 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,” the 85-year-old German pontiff said.
Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius Lahham III said that the contents of the apostolic exhortation were put together by representatives of all Lebanese Christian sects.
“Those who drafted this exhortation represent all Christian sects and it is meant to spread from Lebanon to all Christians in the world and the Islamic world as well,” Lahham said in an interview with the daily Al-Balad newspaper.
Lahham, who first met with Pope Benedict XVI 30 years ago at the University of Regensburg in Germany, has developed a very close relationship with him.
“We speak in German together, and this is what has made our relationship stronger,” Lahham said.
Meanwhile, politicians in Lebanon called on all their supporters to participate in the pope’s visit.
President Michel Sleiman said that the pope will call for dialogue between the Christians and Muslims of the Levant.
“Despite the recent incidents that shook Lebanon, the country is in very good shape, especially in light of the excellent partnership between the sects ... What is needed is more organization and focus on this partnership,” he said.
On Saturday, crowds will greet the pope as he travels in the popemobile from Harissa to the Baabda Palace where he will meet Sleiman, as well as Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker Nabih Berri. Members of the public can also take part in an open-air mass the pope will deliver Sunday at Beirut’s Waterfront.
Head of the delegation of the European Union to Lebanon, Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst also expressed the European Union’s highest appreciation for the pope’s visit and its message of peace and tolerance.
“While this visit is understandably a momentous occasion for Christians in Lebanon and in the region, it is also an important landmark for Lebanese of all faiths. At this time of great upheaval in the region, Pope Benedict’s visit highlights our shared values of respect, tolerance and inclusiveness,” Eichhorst said in a statement.
“The European Union believes that it is only through dialogue that genuine, peaceful and sustainable solutions can be found. This vision lies at the heart of the construction of the European Union and of our partnership with the peoples of our neighborhood,” the statement added.
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 Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.
“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.
Commending the timing of the pope’s visit, which comes amid rapid regional changes and the Arab Spring, 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 the 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 Lebanese to rally to welcome the pope and take part in the masses and public ceremonies during his trip.
“In light of the current regional changes, the pope’s visit is a message to reassure the Christians in the Middle East about their future and a blessing to our country,” Geagea said in a statement.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit 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.