BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon was aimed at launching “a message of peace” while stressing interfaith partnerships and allaying Christian fears over their presence in the region given the turmoil, analysts and politicians said Sunday. Harith Chebab, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee, said the pope’s visit sent out a number of messages, but mainly served to reassure Christians of their presence in the Middle East despite instability and sectarian violence gripping the region.
“The pope told Christians to maintain their effective presence that interacts with their Muslim brothers,” Chebab, who represents the Maronite Church in the dialogue committee, told The Daily Star.
“The pope stressed that Christians must participate in political life in the Middle East in order for peace to be built in the region,” he said.
“As for a political solution in Lebanon, a solution entailing effective Christian participation in the country is an indicator of solutions in the Arab world,” added Chebab, a former head of the Maronite League.
Samir Franjieh, a former Maronite MP, said the pope’s message was meant to assert Christians’ role in the Arab Spring uprisings that have so far toppled four long-serving dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.
“The pope’s message was distinctive in stressing that Christians’ role in the Levant. The pope urged Christians to participate in this change currently taking shape in the Arab world,” Franjieh, a member of the opposition March 14 Secretariat General, told The Daily Star.
“Christians must play their role in this region. The priority is for peace in Lebanon,” Franjieh said, adding: “Christians must act to reconcile viewpoints between Sunnis and Shiites to help internal peace.”
Wrapping up a three-day visit Sunday, the pope issued a sweeping appeal for peace in Syria and the Middle East.
Speaking at an open-air Mass before a huge crowd on the Beirut waterfront, he urged the international community and Arab countries in particular to find a solution to end the 18-month bloody conflict in neighboring Syria.
“We pray to the Virgin Mary to help all the peoples of the region, especially the Syrian people,” the pope said at the end of the Mass.
“You know the problems that beset the region. There is a tremendous amount of pain ... Why so much death? I call on the international community and Arab countries to propose solutions which respect human rights,” he added.
The pope said Christians must do their part to end the wave of death and destruction in the region.
Political analyst Carol Maalouf said the pope carried “a message of peace for everyone in Lebanon and the region.”
“It was a visit of hope and peace,” Maalouf told The Daily Star.
“The pope’s visit was intended to consolidate Christian-Muslim partnership in the region starting from Lebanon,” said Maalouf, a lecturer in political science and political history of Lebanon at the Notre Dame University. “The visit was also aimed at bolstering Christian-Muslim coexistence and alleviating Christian fears.”
Maalouf added that the pope’s visit had defused political tensions in the country and temporarily brought rival leaders together on the surface. “There was a semblance of unity on the surface,” she said.
Tewfic Hindy, a March 14 politician, said the pope’s visit had created “an atmosphere of unity and amity among Christians and a sort of peace between Christians and Muslims.”
He said Lebanon’s Christians would comply with the pope’s call to remain in the Levant undeterred by threats to their presence in some Arab countries as a result of the Arab Spring upheavals.
“Despite their marginalization during Syria’s control of Lebanon, Christians in Lebanon had national Lebanese slogans: sovereignty, independence and freedom,” Hindy told The Daily Star.
“Similarly, Christians in Syria cannot but be for freedom and against any dictatorship,” he said.
Hindy said the pope’s remarks on developments in Syria contained “positive comments on the Arab Spring.”
“By supporting the trend toward freedom, democracy and the rights of peoples of all sects and religions, Christians will be implementing the pope’s call to stay in the Levant and not emigrate,” he said.
However, Hindy said the Muslim leaders of the Arab Spring uprisings ought to embrace Christians and not let fundamentalist or extremist parties control the Arab Spring movement.
Franjieh expressed the belief that Christians would heed the pontiff’s appeal for them to remain in the Levant, rather than emigrate because of instability and civil wars arising from popular upheavals. The former lawmaker added that the pope’s visit would have an impact on developments in Syria’s uprising.
“The pope issued a clear call on the international community and the Arab world to stop the tragedy in Syria,” Franjieh said.
Referring to last week’s violent protests across the Middle East, including attacks on U.S. embassies in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia over a U.S.-made film deemed offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohammad, Franjieh said the pope in his speeches underlined the need for Christians and Muslims to renounce violence and extremism.
Franjieh added that the pope’s visit gave a push to inter-Lebanese unity.
“The pope’s visit brought the Lebanese together. The unity scene was very important. It gave a civilized image despite the different political affiliations,” he said.
For his part, Chebab said the pope’s message to the youth was that the young generation rejected divisions, upheld unity and backed the values of sectarian coexistence.
Noting that Benedict had expressed fears over the future and the fate of Christians as a result of religious fundamentalism, Chehab said: “Fundamentalism is creating fears for Christians about their future ... But the pope carried a message of hope, telling Christians not to be afraid because God is with them and the universal world church supports them.”
Chebab said the pope’s visit had given hope for Christians in Syria. “The pope stressed the issues of freedom and dialogue among religions, particularly the Christian-Muslim dialogue,” he said.
He added that the pope’s visit should provide “a positive shock” for the Lebanese, both officials and ordinary citizens, to uphold the “sublime principles” Benedict touched on in his speeches on Lebanon.
Maalouf said that Christians would heed the pontiff’s call to stay in the region despite mounting concerns about their future as a result of the Arab upheavals.
Asked what chance the pontiffs’s call for tolerance and denouncing religious fundamentalism had, Maalouf said: “With his call, the pope sent a message to moderate Christians and Muslims to join ranks to work against religious fundamentalism. It is a clear call on Christians and Muslims to confront the fundamentalist tide and dictatorial regimes.”