BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI called Friday for peace and reconciliation among peoples in the turbulent Middle East region, while denouncing religious fundamentalism as “a falsification of religion.”
The pope, who arrived in Lebanon on a historic three-day visit amid a deadly conflict in Syria and an outburst of violence in several Arab countries over an anti-Islam film, also urged a halt to arms imports to Syria which he said were a “grave sin.”
“I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men. Christ says: ‘My peace I give to you,’” the 85-year-old pope said in a speech at Beirut airport.
“And looking beyond your country, I also come symbolically to all the countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all the inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs,” he added, addressing Lebanon’s top leaders who were on hand to greet him at the airport.
Amid tight security measures at the airport and the roads to be used by his motorcade, the pope was welcomed by top leaders, including the Lebanese president, prime minister and Parliament speaker, as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders.
“Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region,” he said. But just hours after the pontiff’s arrival, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over a U.S.-made film deemed offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. One protester was killed and 27 others, including 12 policemen, were injured in clashes between security forces and demonstrators in the city of Tripoli.
Speaking to reporters on his Alitalia flight to Lebanon, the pope, in the third-ever visit by a Roman Catholic pontiff to this Mediterranean country, called for an end to arms smuggling to Syria which he said was a “grave sin.”
“The import of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons the war could not continue,” the pontiff said. “Instead of the weapons imports, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas of peace and creativity and find solutions to accept each other with our differences.”
The pope also said he was not afraid to visit Lebanon and described the Arab Spring uprisings that have already removed four long-serving dictators as “positive.”
“It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,” the pope said.
The pope, the head of a church with over 1 billion followers, warned that the push for more freedom could end intolerance for other religions.
During the signing ceremony of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops later Friday, the pope urged Christians of the East not to be afraid and instead brave the difficulties they faced.
At St. Paul’s Basilica in Harissa, north of Beirut, in the presence of religious and political figures, he also praised coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon and said it has contributed to a rich culture and distinguished the country’s social and religious life.
“I urge you not to be afraid but to live in the truth with your beliefs via the language of the Cross,” he told Christians of the East during the ceremony to sign the Exhortation.
Addressing churches in the East, he said: “I ask you to achieve the vow of your faith and practice partnership and testimony in your daily lives.”
During his speech upon arrival at Rafik Hariri International Airport, the pope said his visit aimed at delivering the synod, which he described as “a road map for Christians for years to come,” as well as consecrating the work of the Maronite Church.
Church bells throughout the country tolled in celebration as the pontiff disembarked the plane at the airport.
With a red carpet rolled out to meet the pontiff’s plane, President Michel Sleiman walked beside the pope to a podium specially constructed for them and sat on a pair of burgundy-upholstered wooden chairs. A band played Lebanon’s national anthem and a 21-gun salute was fired in honor of the pontiff, who turned 85 in April of this year.
At the podium, Sleiman expressed hope that the pope’s visit would benefit Lebanon and the region. “We hope that your visit will bring good to Lebanon, the people of this region and their countries including Christians of the East,” the president said.
“Today, Lebanon’s family with all its components and factions welcome your holiness,” Sleiman said. “You decided to choose Lebanon as a message of love to the people of this region via the Apostolic Exhortation of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.”
Benedict, for his part, praised Lebanon’s efforts to maintain dialogue among religions and described the country as an “example of coexistence in the Middle East and the world.”
He also expressed sympathy over what he described as the painful events that Lebanon had gone through as well as events in the region.
At the end of the speech, the pontiff rode in a presidential limousine headed to Harissa, northeast of Beirut, where the Papal Embassy is located.
Benedict XVI is the third pope to visit Lebanon after Paul VI in 1964 (for an airport stopover and news conference) and John Paul II in 1997. – Additional reporting by Dana Khraiche and Rima Aboulmona