BAABDA, Lebanon: Religious freedom is fundamental for stability and forgiveness is key to reconciliation to promote harmony between cultures and religions, Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech Saturday at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, northeast of Beirut.
In a separate ceremony at Bkirki, north of the capital, he also called for interfaith unity to end violence in the Middle East and said he was moved by the courage of Syrian youth braving their own crisis.
"Religious freedom has a social and political dimension which is indispensable for peace," the pope said during his speech at Baabda Palace, where his arrival was eagerly monitored by citizens of Lebanon, which enjoys a sizeable Christian community.
His speech, which came on the second day of his historic visit to Lebanon, coincided with a riot at Lebanon’s largest prison in Roumieh, in which inmates called on the pope to intervene on their behalf and secure amnesty for them.
Benedict said that in order to combat evil a transformation with forgiveness at its core was needed.
The "conversion," the pope said, involves "rejecting revenge, acknowledging one’s faults, accepting apologies without demanding them, and, not least, forgiveness ... Only in this way can there be growth in understanding and harmony between cultures and religions."
“People must reject vengeance, acknowledge their own faults and forgive one another,” he said.
The pontiff was met with cheers by thousands of Lebanese citizens who lined the streets leading to Baabda Palace. Onlookers and well-wishers stood behind a security barrier adorned with Lebanese and Vatican flags. Several white triumphal arches extended from one side of the street to the other.
President Michel Sleiman, the only Christian head of state in the Arab world, said in a speech to political and religious leaders who packed Baabda Palace's May 25 Salon that democracy cannot be attained without Christians.
“Democracy ... cannot be achieved if there is no involvement of the Christian component, which has been rooted in the Levant for 2,000 years,” Sleiman said.
Prior to their speeches, Sleiman and Benedict watered a young Cedar tree at the palace.
Turning to the crisis in Syria, the president said the Syrian people should be able to “accomplish what they desire in terms of reform, freedom, democracy ... through the appropriate dialogue and political means, away from any form of violence and coercion."
Lebanese religious figures voiced support for the pope’s visit and for the Christians of Lebanon.
Grand Mufti of Lebanon Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, in a written message he delivered to the pontiff, stressed that "any attack on any Christian citizen is an attack on Islam."
"Muslims and Christians make up one nation and have equal rights and duties,” Qabbani added.
Visiting 15 years after Pope John Paul II’s landmark trip to Lebanon, Benedict called Friday for peace and reconciliation among peoples in the turbulent Middle East region, while denouncing religious fundamentalism as a “falsification of religion.”
As on Friday, Lebanese expressed their joy over the pope’s visit.
As the motorcade approached Baabda Palace, people all along the route pressed in for a closer look, some showering the convoy with confetti.
The pope, sitting in the bullet-proof, glass-encased Popemobile, waved at the crowds, who lined the street from the Sayyad roundabout all the way up to the hilltop presidential palace in suburban Baabda, four kilometers away.
The papal motorcade, escorted by a presidential guard on horseback, was also greeted by dabke dancers, who included children. The dancers – dressed in traditional Lebanese costume – were allowed to perform on the street itself, a few feet away from the approaching Popemobile.
During his speech at Baabda Palace, where 21 doves were released in the pope’s honor, the Holy See reiterated his praise of coexistence, saying that "in Lebanon, Christianity and Islam have lived side by side for centuries.”
"It is not uncommon to see the two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?” he asked.
"A pluralistic society can only exist on the basis of mutual respect, the desire to know the other, and continuous dialogue. Such dialogue is only possible when the parties are conscious of the existence of values which are common to all great cultures because they are rooted in the nature of the human person," the pope said.
At Bkirki, the Seat of the Maronite Patriarchate, Benedict told youth from across the Middle East that he was moved by the courage of Syrian youth and called for interfaith unity to end violence in the region.
“I am moved by your courage and I pray for you always and I want to tell you that the pope never forgets you,” Benedict told Syrian youth who attended the ceremony.
“The pope is saddened by your calamities. You are in my prayers,” Benedict added, addressing a gathering that included Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, his predecessor Nasrallah Butros Sfeir and Sleiman, who had not been scheduled to attend the ceremony.
The Holy See also said violence that has swept throughout the region could come to an end through interfaith unity.
“It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together to put an end to violence in the Middle East,” the pontiff said.
The pope's visit, which began Friday, comes at a time of ongoing clashes in neighboring Syria and a spate of region-wide violence sparked by a U.S.-made film insulting Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
On Sunday, the pope is schedule to head a Mass in Beirut and present the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East before departing the country at around 7 p.m.