Holy Father Pope BVenedict XVI arrived in Lebanon for a three-day visit despite the recent unrest — including civil war in Syria, on 14th September 2012.
‘‘I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace,’’ the 85-year-old pope said upon arrival in Beirut, speaking under a canopy at the airport on a sultry afternoon. ‘‘As a friend of God and as a friend of men.’’
He denounced religious fundamentalism, calling it ‘‘a falsification of religion.’’
The crowd at the pope’s arrival was small as security kept most people away from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, which is named after a former prime minister who was assassinated in a 2005 bombing that some blame on the regime in Syria.
The pontiff was welcomed by top leaders, including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker, as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Cannons fired a 21-shots salute for the pope.
‘‘Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region,’’ he said.
On 14th September eveining in the Greek-Melkite Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa, Lebanon, Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI signed the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, "Ecclesia in Medio Oriente". The basilica forms part of a complex which includes a major seminary and a "house for writers" who study the sacred texts and translate documents of the Magisterium into Arabic. Since 1909 it has also been the headquarters of the Missionaries of St. Paul.
The Holy Father was received by His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites. Following the entrance chant in the Byzantine rite, the Pope paused to venerate the icons conserved inside the basilica. Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, then pronounced some words after which the ceremony continued with the initial chants in the Maronite rite.
Following the readings Benedict XVI delivered greetings to the patriarchs and a group of Oriental and Latin bishops, to Orthodox, Muslim and Druze delegations, as well as to representatives of the world of culture and civil society, and the Greek-Melkite community.
"The happy coexistence of Islam and Christianity, two religions that have helped to shape great cultures", he said, "is what makes for the originality of social, political and religious life in Lebanon. One can only rejoice in this circumstance, which must absolutely be encouraged. I entrust this wish to the religious leaders of your country".
"Providentially, this event takes place on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a celebration originating in the East in 335, following the dedication of the Basilica of the Resurrection built over Golgotha and our Lord’s tomb by the Emperor Constantine the Great, whom you venerate as saint. A month from now we will celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the appearance to Constantine of the 'Chi-Rho', radiant in the symbolic night of his unbelief and accompanied by the words: 'In this sign you will conquer!'"
"There is an inseparable bond between the cross and the resurrection which Christians must never forget. Without this bond, to exalt the cross would mean to justify suffering and death, seeing them merely as our inevitable fate. For Christians, to exalt the cross means to be united to the totality of God’s unconditional love for mankind. It means making an act of faith! To exalt the cross, against the backdrop of the resurrection, means to desire to experience and to show the totality of this love. It means making an act of love! To exalt the cross means to be a committed herald of fraternal and ecclesial communion, the source of authentic Christian witness. It means making an act of hope!
"In examining the present situation of the Church in the Middle East, the Synod Fathers reflected on the joys and struggles, the fears and hopes of Christ’s disciples in these lands. In this way, 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, who desire to follow Christ - the One Who gives meaning to their existence - yet often find themselves prevented from doing so".
"At the same time, the Church was able to admire all that is beautiful and noble in the Churches in these lands. How can we fail to thank God at every moment for all of you, dear Christians of the Middle East! How can we fail to praise Him for your courage and faith? How can we fail to thank Him for the flame of His infinite love which you continue to keep alive and burning in these places which were the first to welcome His incarnate Son? How can we fail to praise and thank Him for your efforts to build ecclesial and fraternal communion, and for the human solidarity which you constantly show to all God’s children?
"'Ecclesia in Medio Oriente' makes it possible to rethink the present in order to look to the future with the eyes of Christ. By its biblical and pastoral orientation, its invitation to deeper spiritual and ecclesiological reflection, its call for liturgical and catechetical renewal, and its summons to dialogue, the Exhortation points out a path for rediscovering what is essential: being a follower of Christ even in difficult and sometimes painful situations which may lead to the temptation to ignore or to forget the exaltation of the cross. It is here and now that we are called to celebrate the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, service over domination, humility over pride, and unity over division. In the light of today’s Feast, and in view of a fruitful application of the Exhortation, I urge all of you to fear not, to stand firm in truth and in purity of faith. This is the language of the cross, exalted and glorious ... capable of changing our sufferings into a declaration of love for God and mercy for our neighbour, ... of transforming those who suffer because of their faith and identity into vessels of clay ready to be filled to overflowing by divine gifts more precious than gold. This is more than simply picturesque language: it is a pressing appeal to act concretely in a way which configures us ever more fully to Christ, in a way which helps the different Churches to reflect the beauty of the first community of believers".
"'Ecclesia in Medio Oriente' provides some elements that are helpful for a personal and communal examination of conscience, and an objective evaluation of the commitment and desire for holiness of each one of Christ’s disciples. The Exhortation shows openness to authentic inter-religious dialogue based on faith in the one God, the Creator. It also seeks to contribute to an ecumenism full of human, spiritual and charitable fervour, in evangelical truth and love".
"The Exhortation as a whole is meant to help each of the Lord’s disciples to live fully and to pass on faithfully to others what he or she has become by Baptism: a child of light, sharing in God’s own light, a lamp newly lit amid the troubled darkness of this world, so that the light may shine in the darkness. The document seeks to help purify the faith from all that disfigures it, from everything that can obscure the splendour of Christ’s light. For communion is true fidelity to Christ, and Christian witness is the radiance of the paschal mystery which gives full meaning to the cross, exalted and glorious".
"'Fear not, little flock', and remember the promise made to Constantine: 'In this sign you will conquer!” Churches of the Middle East, fear not, for the Lord is truly with you, to the close of the age! Fear not, because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you! It is with this hope and this word of encouragement to be active heralds of the faith by your communion and witness. ... God grant that all the peoples of the Middle East may live in peace, fraternity and religious freedom! May God bless all of you!"
Earlier Friday, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope said he never considered canceling the trip for security reasons, adding that ‘‘no one ever advised (me) to renounce this trip and personally, I have never considered this.’’
He also praised the Arab Spring uprisings, which have ousted four long-time dictators.
‘‘It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,’’ the pope said.
The turmoil stemming from the Arab Spring has deeply unsettled the Middle East’s Christian population, which fears being in the crossfire of rival Muslim groups.
Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Mideast — nearly 40 percent of the country’s 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics being the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.
Benedict, the third pope to visit Lebanon after Paul VI in 1964 and John Paul II in 1997, will be addressing concerns by the region’s bishops over the plight of Christians in the Middle East. War, political instability and economic hardship have driven thousands from their traditional communities, dating to early Christianity in the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere.
A Middle East without Christians, the pope said Friday, ‘‘would no longer be the Middle East.’’
The pope also called for an end to weapons imports to Syria, where rebels say they are desperate for an influx of weapons to help them tip the balance against President Bashar Assad’s regime. According to activist estimates, some 23,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
‘‘The import of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons the war could not continue,’’ he said. ‘‘Instead of the weapons import, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas of peace and creativity and find solutions to accept each other with our differences.’’
The papal visit comes amid fears that Syria’s conflict might ignite tensions in Lebanon. Clashes in Lebanon between Syrian groups in recent months have killed more than two dozen people and left scores wounded.
The Christian community in Lebanon is divided between supporters and opponents of Assad. Among Assad’s supporters is former Lebanese prime minister and army commander Michel Aoun, a strong ally of the militant Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, welcomed the pontiff’s visit, describing it as ‘‘extraordinary and historic.’’
‘‘I cannot forget the sad and painful events which have affected your beautiful country along the years,’’ Benedict said, referring to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, which left about 150,000 people dead.
‘‘Looking at your country, I also come symbolically to all countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs,’’ he said.
After Friday’s ceremony at the airport, Benedict’s convoy drove through Beirut as army aircraft flew overhead for protection. The pope was on his way to the mountain town of Harisa, where he will stay at the Vatican Embassy.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi did not rule out that the pope would meet some supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group that has risen steadily over the decades from anti-Israel resistance group into Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force. The US considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Lombardi declined to say what the Vatican’s position is on the group.