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FILE - Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to attend a meeting with youths in Bkerke in Harissa, near Beirut September 15, 2012. Picture taken September 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)
FILE - Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to attend a meeting with youths in Bkerke in Harissa, near Beirut September 15, 2012. Picture taken September 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)
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One of the world’s leading religious figures spent the weekend in Lebanon preaching a message of coexistence and dialogue, as politicians from across the national divide lined up to offer their heartfelt welcome.

But as soon as the plane of Pope Benedict XVI left Lebanese airspace, it seemed that all of the goodwill dissipated, and the country returned to “normal.”

On Monday, Syrian military planes conducted their first airstrike against Lebanese territory, in the Bekaa Valley, thereby placing government officials in direct confrontation with their declared stance to “disassociate” the country from the crisis next door.

Politicians who have been defending this precarious policy will now have to show that they are in fact committed to their constitutional oath to protect their country’s national sovereignty. Disassociation does not mean abdicating one’s responsibility to defending Lebanon when its borders are violated.

The next test comes later this week, when a session of National Dialogue is supposed to take place, but the latest indications point to another setback on this front, with President Michel Sleiman now busy asking for clarifications from Iran about the presence of advisers from its Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon.

Former President Amin Gemayel issued a serious warning about tension and destabilization, describing the country as “on the brink.” These words send a strong signal to the Arab region and the rest of the world that conditions in Lebanon are intolerable and worrying.

He was responding to the latest incident of kidnapping, which also took place Monday. While the motive in this particular act appears to be financial, the phenomenon of kidnapping for political reasons has become nearly routine in recent months. While the authorities have taken a strong verbal stance on the issue, they must continue to grapple with this problem and be able to show that their efforts are paying off.

Another worrying incident for the country’s stability emerged with a mass demonstration in the southern suburbs of Beirut, to protest an outrageous, insulting film targeting Islam. The gathering was a peaceful one, and legitimate – but politicians should be aware that demonstrations of this sort are threatened by the desire to outbid other sides. Are there guarantees that the phenomenon of mass demonstrations over an extremely sensitive issue – and Lebanon has been promised more of such gatherings – will not fall prey to the efforts of fifth columnists, looking to exploit the situation?

Pope Benedict spent three grueling days preaching a message of peace, dialogue and coexistence, and the pressing matter of confronting the huge challenges posed by a region in turmoil. All of the evidence indicates that the public was receptive to his words, while for the political class, its members remain as divided as ever, whether the issue in question is great or small.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 18, 2012, on page 7.
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