Pope's Lebanon visit sends a message of peace to Middle East

Pope's Lebanon visit sends a message of peace to Middle East

Michael Gilchrist

On the first day of his visit to Lebanon, on 14 September, Pope Benedict XVI signed his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in the Middle East, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente which comprises Benedict's reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to the region's Christians.

The official signing ceremony took place at the Melkite Greek Catholic Basilica of St Paul in the coastal town of Harissa. Listening to Pope Benedict was a packed congregation including leaders of Lebanon's 40 percent Christian community - mainly Catholic and Orthodox - along with leaders of other religions including the region's dominant faith, Islam.

Following Mass, Benedict formally presented the document to representatives from the Latin-rite, Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, Coptic, Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Churches living in countries from Egypt to Iran.

Religious freedom

In the 90-page document, the Pope calls for religious freedom and warns of the dangers of fundamentalism. He describes religious freedom as the "pinnacle of all other freedoms," and a "sacred and inalienable right," which includes the "freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one's beliefs in public."

This confronts the harsh reality that it remains a civil crime in many Muslim countries for Muslims to convert to another faith, while in Saudi Arabia, Catholic priests have been arrested for celebrating Mass, even in private.

The document also draws attention to the "wide variety of forms of discrimination" against women in Muslim countries and urges that women "should play, and be allowed to play, a greater part in public and ecclesial life."

Bishop Joseph Mouawad, vicar of Lebanon's Maronite Patriarchate, told Catholic News Service that the apostolic exhortation represented "a roadmap for Christians of the Middle East to live their renewal at all levels, especially at the level of communion." The exhortation would also be a call to dialogue, he said, especially between Christians and Muslims.

As if to underline this, prior to Pope Benedict XVI's arrival, Christians and Muslims came together for a prayer vigil on 12 September to invoke the protection of God and the Virgin Mary over the Pope's upcoming visit. Four processions of young people converged on the "Garden of Mary" in Beirut's Museum Square with Christian and Muslim readings and prayers asking for God's blessing.

The Secretary of the Commission of the Lebanese Bishops' Conference for Dialogue with Islam, Father Antoine Daou, said, "It will be a national and popular holiday, to show to the world that Lebanon can be in this moment in history the country of co-existence between Christians and Muslims."

A number of organisations devoted to Christian-Muslim dialogue promoted the event, including the group "Together Around Mary," which in recent years has organised joint Muslim-Christian celebrations on the feast of the Annunciation. Since 2010, the Annunciation has been a national holiday in Lebanon to help promote better relations between the members of the two faiths.

Epitomising the welcome by Muslim leaders, Lebanon's grand mufti gave Pope Benedict a written message which included the words "any attack on any Christian citizen is an attack on Islam." Would that more Muslim leaders held this view.

Shortly after his arrival, Benedict spoke of the anguish of the troubled region, as it was described by the bishops who participated in the special Synod for the Middle East. During those deliberations, he said, "the entire Church was able to hear the troubled cry and see the desperate faces of many men and women who experience grave human and material difficulties, who live amid powerful tensions in fear and uncertainty."

The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk (Iraq), Louis Sako, saw the papal visit to Lebanon as positive. In a meeting with Aid to the Church in Need in Beirut, he expressed his conviction that the visit would lead many Muslims to a rethink in view of the peacefulness and openness to dialogue displayed by the Pope and the assembled Christians.

"The culture of peace that was thus expressed is helpful to all of us in the Middle East, both Christians and Muslims," Archbishop Sako commented. He said that he had already received very positive reactions from Islamic friends in Iraq who were impressed by the peaceable assembly of hundreds of thousands of Christians on television. "The Pope's smile was a message in itself."

Archbishop Sako also expressed hope that Benedict's Apostolic Letter would contribute to strengthening togetherness among the Oriental Churches.

Celebrating peace

At the conclusion of his trip, on 16 September, Benedict remarked that his visit had provided an example of inter-faith unity at a time of extreme tensions in the Middle East. "In these troubled times, the Arab world and indeed the entire world will have seen Christians and Muslims united in celebrating peace."

Despite the turmoil in the region, following the controversial anti-Islam video, and the fears of some observers who suggested that the violence in Syria could spill over into Lebanon during the Pope's stay, the entire papal visit took place without incident. In fact Muslims seemed nearly as numerous as Lebanese Christians in the crowds that turned out to greet Benedict.

Perhaps his most eloquent message of hope to the troubled region lay not in the diplomatic language of his public statements, but in his very presence and the response it evoked from his hosts.

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