BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI called on all Lebanese to reject strife and work for unity as he wrapped up an historic three-day visit, which included an open-air Mass that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Beirut’s Waterfront. “I pray to God for Lebanon, that she may live in peace and courageously resist all that could destroy or undermine that peace,” the pope said during farewell remarks at Rafik Hariri International Airport.
“I hope that Lebanon will fortify the communion among all her inhabitants, whatever their community or religion, that she will resolutely reject all that could lead to disunity, and with determination choose brotherhood,” Benedict added.
Touching on the country’s diverse cultures and faiths, the pontiff praised Lebanon’s diverse sectarian system, which he said was unique.
The pontiff also praised the efforts of the president and the government in organizing activities during his stay and said: “In these troubled times, the Arab world and indeed the entire world will have seen Christians and Muslims united in celebrating peace.”
“May God bless Lebanon and all the Lebanese,” Benedict added, as hundreds of people dressed in white and carrying Vatican flags chanted his name.
The pope waved goodbye to onlookers before boarding a Middle East Airlines Airbus 320, which left for Rome at 7:30 p.m.
President Michel Sleiman, who also spoke during the farewell ceremony, thanked the pontiff for his efforts to help Lebanon remain united and said the country would stay loyal to the message of coexistence.
“We cannot but thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your compassion, care and efforts for the sake of Lebanon and its unity,” he said after a military band played the national anthems of the Vatican and Lebanon.
“You depart the land of the cedars after bringing it and the East a message of peace and love at a time of historic changes and challenges,” Sleiman said.
Sleiman, the only Christian head of state in the Arab world, said that the Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East, which the pope signed Friday, represents a “new hope for Lebanon,” because it carries political, culture and social recommendations.
Earlier in the day, Benedict held a Mass before some 350,000 people, praying for the people of the Middle East and calling on world leaders to reach a solution to the crisis in Syria.
“We pray to the Virgin Mary to help all the peoples of the region, especially the Syrian people,” the pope said. “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 that respect human rights,” he said.
Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati as well as MPs and Cabinet ministers attended the Mass. Other politicians from across the political divide were on hand as well.
Those who braved the 35 degree heat in Beirut described the Mass as both timely and meaningful.
George Karmoush, 83, came from Zahle for the service. “This Mass will definitely boost the morale of the people ... The pope’s visit has made us all happy,” he said.
“I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity,” the pope told worshippers.
“The vocation of the church and of each Christian is to serve others, as the Lord Himself did, freely and impartially,” Benedict said.
The pope called on Christians to “cooperate with all people of goodwill” to strive for peace. “This is an essential witness which Christians must bear here, in cooperation with all people of goodwill. I appeal to all of you to be peacemakers, wherever you find yourselves.”
At the end of Mass, the pontiff gave out copies of the Apostolic Exhortation to patriarchs and bishops of different sects. He said he hoped that the exhortation would guide Christians in Lebanon and the Middle East forward.
Mikati said Sunday that Benedict chose Lebanon to announce the Apostolic Exhortation because he believes in Lebanon’s role in the region and its unique experience. “During our meeting when bidding farewell at the VIP lounge in the airport, his holiness the pope expressed his happiness for the visit he made and said: ‘it is an unforgettable visit ... and I have felt the deepness of faith entrenched in the hearts of the Lebanese and the level of discipline they have.”
“This saying by his holiness the pope holds us, we Lebanese, responsible for consecrating values that distinguish our country, with coexistence and tolerance being in the forefront,” he added. Mikati said that nothing could come between the Lebanese if they continued to demonstrate solidarity and cooperation as they did in receiving the pope.
The Syriac Catholic monastery in Charfet, north of Beirut, was the pope’s last stop prior to his departure. During a 30-minute meeting with Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, as well as patriarchs and bishops of non-Catholic denominations, the pope stressed the importance of Christian unity in the Middle East, urging Christians not to abandon their land.
Patriarch Younan, who resides at the Syriac Catholic patriarchate in Beirut for most of the year, received the pope upon arrival and accompanied him to the Hall of Honor, where the pontiff signed the monastery’s guest book. – Additional reporting by Stephen Dockery and Wassim Mroueh