It is hoped that by this time next week, Lebanon will be able to congratulate itself on hosting the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, a religious figure with immense importance for many people in the country and the region.
The pontiff and his advisers must be aware that the situation of Lebanese Christians and other Christian communities in the Middle East has deteriorated since the historic visit by Pope John Paul II 15 years ago.
Instability and the steady emigration of Christians were on the minds of many people in 1997 and today the situation is even more critical, amid a wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world.
On one level, Benedict’s visit will undoubtedly be a boost for Lebanon, and will take place one week after the Maronite patriarch visits Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in the Chouf region of Mount Lebanon.
Both events are opportunities for religious and political figures to voice their support for reconciliation and coexistence, and it is hoped that these noble goals can be cemented.
But the speech-making of this weekend’s visit by Rai, and the Apostolic Exhortation that the pope will sign in Lebanon next week, highlight objectives that very few people can stand against – the point is to see tangible results after such visits take place, in the form of serious follow-up and actual policies for implementation.
In Lebanon, the return of the Civil War-era displaced is one place among many to begin, and the country’s track record here has been disappointing. Turf battles, fights over funding, and the lack of a robust plan to return the displaced all conspired to wreck this important national project. The goal now should be to “close the file” once and for all, while ensuring that people who wish to return have the encouragement to do so. This means both ensuring that people feel absolute safety in returning to or residing in their home towns and villages, and providing the real-world requirements, in the form of services, infrastructure and economic incentive, to make their presence durable.
Meanwhile, the pope’s words and discussions will be focused on Christians in Lebanon and the rest of the region – the Vatican should realize that people also need to see tangible efforts to improve their situation, and not just the right rhetoric.
The Palestine issue is a central issue, and a central cause of instability in the Middle East. The Vatican should take a strong stance, and pursue active lobbying, to see a solution for this situation since it can only help reduce the type of instability that sees so many leave.
During the papal visit, Benedict and his team will undoubtedly hear much about people’s fears and concerns, and if he truly intends to inspire hope, tangible progress will have to come soon.