Following the papal visit to Lebanon

Pope calls Middle Eastern Christians to suffering, service

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass on the waterfront in Beirut Sept. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BEIRUT (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, reassuring them and urging them to promote peace through religiously inspired service to their societies.

“Your sufferings are not in vain,” the pope told a crowd of at least 350,000 at a sweltering outdoor Mass at Beirut’s City Center Waterfront Sept. 16. “Remain ever hopeful because of Christ.”

In his homily, Pope Benedict commented on the day’s reading from the Gospel of St. Mark, in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Jesus is a “Messiah who suffers,” the pope said, “a Messiah who serves, and not some triumphant political savior.”

Speaking in a region riven by sectarian politics, where party loyalties are often determined by religious affiliation, the pope warned that people can invoke Jesus to “advance agendas which are not his, to raise false temporal hopes in his regard.”

Pope Benedict told his listeners, whose travails of war and economic insecurity he had acknowledged repeatedly throughout his visit, that Christianity is essentially a faith of redemptive suffering.

“Following Jesus means taking up one’s cross and following in his footsteps along a difficult path which leads not to earthly power or glory but, if necessary, to self-abandonment, to losing one’s life for Christ and the Gospel in order to save it,” he said.

Yet Pope Benedict also cited another of the day’s Mass readings, the epistle of St. James, to emphasize the spiritual value of “concrete actions” and works, concluding that “service is a fundamental element” of Christian identity.

Addressing a region where Christian-run social services, including schools and health care facilities, are extensively used by the Muslim majority, the pope stressed the importance of “serving the poor, the outcast and the suffering,” and called on Christians to be “servants of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.”

“This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will,” Pope Benedict said.

During the homily, the only sound was the pope’s voice and its echo from the loudspeakers. Many people leaned over and bowed their heads with eyes closed, so they could concentrate more deeply.

Following the Mass, the pope formally presented patriarchs and bishops of the Middle East with a document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to the region’s Christians. In the 90-page document, called an apostolic exhortation, the pope called for religious freedom and warned of the dangers of fundamentalism.

Sheltered from the sun only by white baseball caps and the occasional umbrella, people had already packed the city’s central district by 8 a.m., almost an hour-and-a-half before the pope arrived in the popemobile, which took him to the foot of the altar. In temperatures that rose into the high 80s, the pope celebrated Mass under a canopy while bishops and patriarchs on either side wiped their brows and fanned themselves with programs.

Aside from the complimentary white pope caps, people in the crowd improvised versions of sun protection with torn pieces of corrugated boxes tied around heads and papal and Lebanese flags worn as bandanas.

George Srour, 38, estimated that 20,000 people came from Zahle in a convoy of chartered school buses, leaving at 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Mass.

“We Christians must be united and participate” in the pope’s visit, Srour told Catholic News Service, “otherwise there will be no more Lebanon. It will become like Iraq, and now Syria, with all the Christians leaving.”

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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

At youth celebration, pope tells Christians: Stay and make peace

By Francis X. Rocca and Doreen Abi Raad

Pope Benedict XVI leads a meeting with young people in the square outside of the Maronite patriarch’s residence in Bkerke, Lebanon, Sept. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring

BKERKE, Lebanon (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians in the Middle East not to flee violence and economic insecurity through emigration, but to draw strength from their faith and make peace in their troubled region.

The pope spoke to some 20,000 young people from several Middle Eastern countries gathered outside the residence of the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke in a celebration that included fireworks, spotlights, singing and prayer.

The crowd began to form hours before Pope Benedict arrived in the popemobile a little after 6 p.m. After passing through the metal detector and the gates of Bkerke, visitors were greeted by Scouts who gave them an olive branch to wave to welcome the pope and a knapsack containing water, snacks, an Arabic Bible and the new edition of the youth catechism — “YouCat,” a gift from Pope Benedict.

A giant rosary fashioned from yellow and blue balloons hovered over the crowd, its colors blending in with the cloudless sky and Mediterranean Sea below the hillside.

Pope Benedict asked young Christians, whose population is diminishing across the Middle East, not to abandon their homelands.

“Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future,” he said. “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future and to take your place in society and in the church.”

Warning against escapism, the pope urged his listeners not to “take refuge in parallel worlds like those, for example, of the various narcotics or the bleak world of pornography.”

He acknowledged that online social networks are interesting, but said they “can quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual.” He called money a “tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart.”

Offering encouragement, the pope invoked the inspiration of the first Christians, inhabitants of the Middle East who “lived in troubled times and their faith was the source of their courage and their witness.”

“Courageously resist everything opposed to life: abortion, violence, rejection of and contempt for others, injustice and war,” Pope Benedict said. “In this way you will spread peace all around you.”

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his welcoming speech, told the pope, “These youths suffer from social, political and economic crises that negatively affect their faith and cause some of them to lose the real meaning of their Christian identity.”

Two youths spoke to the pope, basing their remarks on input from young Christian from all over the region.

The Middle East’s young Christians, they said, “yearn for peace and dream of a future without wars, a future where we will play an active role, where we work with our brothers, the young people of different religions to build a civilization of love … homelands where human rights and freedom are respected, where each one’s dignity is protected.”

“We are looking for a culture of peace,” they said, calling for the condemnation of violence. “We want to be living bridges, mediators of dialogue and cooperation.”

The crowd cheered when the pope said he did not forget the Syrian people, stressing that he is always praying for them and that he is glad there were some Syrian people at the gathering.

Syria’s civil war has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.

“The pope is saddened by your sufferings and your grief,” he said, his first public reference to the Syrian conflict since he arrived in Lebanon. “It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war.”

Pope Benedict also offered a word of thanks to the Muslims in attendance, urging them to work with Christians to build up the region.

“Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society,” the pope said.

After young people presented the prayer intentions, fireworks erupted from all corners of Bkerke, taking the pope by surprise. Sparklers cascaded from the roof of the outdoor chapel facing the stage, lighting up the sky.

At the conclusion of the gathering, spotlights atop the chapel illuminated the courtyard. The huge inflatable globe that had been placed earlier under the cross was sent airborne, with young people bouncing it like a like a volleyball.

A light show flashed “take-home” reminders on the walls: “love,” “missionaries of peace,” “pray.”

Pope urges interfaith dialogue in Mideast, defends religious freedom

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI signs the apostolic exhortation on the church’s concerns in the Middle East during his visit to the Melkite Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa, Lebanon, Sept. 14. Pictured at far left is Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham. Sanding next to the pope is Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

BEIRUT (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI signed a major document calling on Catholics in the Middle East to engage in dialogue with Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim neighbors, but also to affirm and defend their right to live freely in the region where Christianity was born.

In a ceremony at the Melkite Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa Sept. 14, Pope Benedict signed the 90-page document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East. He was to formally present the document Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut.

A section dedicated to interreligious dialogue encouraged Christians to “esteem” the region’s dominant religion, Islam, lamenting that “both sides have used doctrinal differences as a pretext for justifying, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization and even of persecution.”

Yet in a reflection of the precarious position of Christians in most of the region today, where they frequently experience negative legal and social discrimination, the pope called for Arab societies to “move beyond tolerance to religious freedom.”

The “pinnacle of all other freedoms,” religious freedom is 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,” the pope wrote.

It is a civil crime in some Muslim countries for Muslims to convert to another faith and, in Saudi Arabia, Catholic priests have been arrested for celebrating Mass, even in private.

The papal document, called an apostolic exhortation, denounced “religious fundamentalism” as the opposite extreme of the secularization that Pope Benedict has often criticized in the context of contemporary Western society.

Fundamentalism, which “afflicts all religious communities,” thrives on “economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion,” the pope wrote. “It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons.”

Many Christians in the Middle East have expressed growing alarm at the rise of Islamist extremism, especially since the so-called Arab Spring democracy movement has toppled or threatened secular regimes that guaranteed religious minorities the freedom to practice their faith.

Earlier in the day, the pope told reporters accompanying him on the plane from Rome that the Arab Spring represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a “renewed Arab identity.” But he warned against the danger of forgetting that “human liberty is always a shared reality,” and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

The apostolic exhortation criticized another aspect of social reality in the Middle East by denouncing the “wide variety of forms of discrimination” against women in the region.

“In recognition of their innate inclination to love and protect human life, and paying tribute to their specific contribution to education, health care, humanitarian work and the apostolic life,” Pope Benedict wrote, “I believe that women should play, and be allowed to play, a greater part in public and ecclesial life.”

In his speech at the document’s signing, Pope Benedict observed that Sept. 14 was the feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, a celebration associated with the Emperor Constantine the Great, who in the year 313 granted religious freedom in the Roman Empire and was later baptized.

The pope urged Christians in the Middle East to “act concretely … in a way like that of the Emperor Constantine, who could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination to enable them openly and freely to live their faith in Christ crucified, dead and risen for the salvation of all.”

While the pope signed the document in an atmosphere of interreligious harmony, with Orthodox, Muslim and Druze leaders in the attendance at the basilica, the same day brought an outburst of religiously inspired violence to Lebanon.

During a protest against the American-made anti-Muslim film that prompted demonstrations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen earlier in the week, a group attempted to storm a Lebanese government building in the northern city of Tripoli. The resulting clashes left one person dead and 25 wounded, local media reported. According to Voice of Lebanon radio, Lebanese army troops were deployed to Tripoli to prevent further violence.

Mohammad Samak, the Muslim secretary-general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, told Catholic News Service that the violence had nothing to do with the pope’s visit.

“All Muslim leaders and Muslim organizations — political and religious — they are all welcoming the Holy Father and welcoming his visit,” Samak said. “I hope his visit will give more credibility to what we have affirmed as the message of Lebanon — a country of conviviality between Christians and Muslims who are living peacefully and in harmony together for hundreds of years now.”

Bishop Joseph Mouawad, vicar of Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarchate, told CNS that the apostolic exhortation represents “a roadmap for Christians of the Middle East to live their renewal at all levels, especially at the level of communion.”

The exhortation will also be a call to dialogue, he said, especially between Christians and Muslims.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said now church leaders in each Mideast country must “work on how to translate the exhortation into real life in our communities and also in our Muslim and Christian relationships.”

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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

Pope says religious freedom is necessary for Middle East peace

By Francis X. Rocca

People wave the flags of Lebanon and the Vatican as Pope Benedict makes his way in the popemobile through a shower of confetti near the Baabda Presidential Palace southeast of Beirut Sept. 15. (CNS photo/Hasan Shaaban, Reuters)

BEIRUT (CNS) — Peace will not come to the Middle East until its nations enjoy religious freedom, since only the free practice of faith can inspire the region’s diverse peoples to unite around basic human values, Pope Benedict XVI said Sept. 15.

The pope addressed a multifaith gathering of Lebanon’s political, religious and cultural leaders at the presidential palace in Baabda on the second day of a three-day visit to the country.

Pope Benedict’s travels coincided with a wave of often-violent protests — prompted by an American-made film denigrating Islam — in at least a dozen Muslim countries. On Sept. 14, protesters denounced the papal visit during a demonstration in the Lebanese city of Tripoli; one person died and 25 were wounded in a clash that followed.

In his speech to the nation’s leaders, the pope did not refer specifically to any of the region’s many past or present conflicts, including the current civil war in neighboring Syria, but noted that the “centuries-old mix” of cultures and religions in the Middle East has not always been peaceful.

Peace requires a pluralistic society based on “mutual respect, a desire to know the other, and continuous dialogue,” the pope said, and such dialogue in turn depends on consciousness of sharing fundamental human values, cherished and sustained in common by different religions. Thus, he argued, “religious freedom is the basic right on which many rights depend.”

The pope spoke after meeting privately with Lebanon’s president and prime minister, the president of parliament, and leaders of the country’s four major Muslim communities: Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Alawite. Lebanon’s population is estimated to be about 60 percent Muslim and almost 40 percent Christian, with both groups divided into many smaller communities.

In an apparent reference to the many Middle Eastern countries that restrict the practice or expression of religions other than Islam, the pope said that freedom must go beyond “what nowadays passes for tolerance,” which he said “does not eliminate cases of discrimination” but sometimes “even reinforces them.”

“The freedom to profess and practice one’s religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone,” he said.

Those remarks echoed portions of a document that Pope Benedict signed the previous night in Harissa and was to present formally Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut. The document is a collection of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops dedicated to Christians in the Middle East.

In his talk in Baabda, the pope did not explicitly address the topic of religiously inspired violence, but included a single reference to terrorism and the assertion that “authentic faith does not lead to death.”

He also said that peace requires a shared respect for human life and dignity. Those values are undermined not only by war, he said, but by a range of social ills, including unemployment, corruption, “different forms of trafficking,” and an “economic and financial mindset which would subordinate ‘being’ to ‘having.’”

The pope also warned against ideologies that he said “undermine the foundations of our society” by “questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family” — an apparent reference to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, political and religious leaders should promote a “culture of peace” through education, which he said would encourage a “conversion of heart” characterized above all by a willingness to forgive.

“Only forgiveness, given and received,” the pope said, “can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace.”

Pope Benedict arrives in Lebanon as ‘pilgrim of peace’

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI is assisted by Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman after the pontiff arrived at Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut Sept. 14 to begin his three-day visit to Lebanon. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BEIRUT (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon Sept. 14, saying that he came “as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men.”

In his remarks at a welcoming ceremony at Beirut’s airport, Pope Benedict praised Lebanon, with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims, for its distinctive record of “coexistence and respectful dialogue.”

But speaking in a country that was devastated by a civil war from 1975 to 1990, the pope acknowledged that Lebanese society’s “equilibrium, which is presented everywhere as an example, is extremely delicate.”

“Sometimes it seems about to snap like a bow which is overstretched or submitted to pressures,” he said.

The pope said Lebanon’s social equilibrium “should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs and consolidated with determination.”

Earlier in the day, speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome, Pope Benedict addressed some of the turbulence currently affecting the rest of the Middle East. He praised the so-called Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave that started in December 2010, leading to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and currently threatening the government of Syria, just across the border from Lebanon.

The pope said the movement represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a “renewed Arab identity.” But he warned against the danger of forgetting that “human liberty is always a shared reality,” and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

Many Middle Eastern Christians fear that revolution has empowered Islamist extremism in the region, increasing the danger of attacks and persecution of the sort that Iraq’s Christians have suffered since the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Pope Benedict’s primary reason for visiting Lebanon is to deliver his document of reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East.

Asked about the current exodus of Christians from civil-war-torn Syria, the pope noted that Muslims, too, have been fleeing the violence there. He went on to say that the best way to preserve the Christian presence in Syria was to promote peace, among other ways by restricting sales of military arms.

Speaking only three days after the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members, the pope told reporters that he had never considered canceling his visit to Lebanon out of security concerns, and that no one had advised him to do so.

The pope arrived at the Beirut airport, which was closed to all other air traffic for reasons of security, at shortly before 2 p.m. He was welcomed by Lebanon President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Catholic, who hailed the pope for bringing the “peace of God in whom all the people of this region believe.”

A chorus of teenagers at the airport serenaded the pope with hymns and chanted his name. Some held a sign written in English: “Have no fear, the pope is here.” Outside the airport, a group of Muslim women and girls, entirely covered except for their eyes, also waited to welcome the pope.

After the speeches, Pope Benedict was greeted by Lebanese government leaders and dozens of local religious leaders from the country’s various Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim communities. Although he stood while giving his speech and greeting the dignitaries, he walked slowly with a cane as he left the airport.

The pope traveled 16 miles from Beirut to Harissa, and all entrances of Lebanon’s coastal highway were closed off ahead of time as part of the stringent security measures. Just south of Harissa, traffic came to a standstill alongside the highway.

Frustrated drivers responded to the tie-up as they typically do in Lebanon, with a chorus of car horns. Realizing they would be stuck for a long time, many drivers turned off their cars and mingled with other stranded motorists. One offered a bottle of water to the soldier guarding the road.

More than an hour later, a lone helicopter appeared, a signal to motorists and shopkeepers that the pope’s motorcade would soon be approaching. Crowds of people then lined the highway, cheering as the motorcade passed.

A Filipina worker looked at her mobile phone and raised her hand in victory that she had captured a photo of the pope.

When the barricades to the coastal highway entrances were removed, motorists raced to get ahead on the highway, but soon encountered traffic jams.

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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

Posted on September 14, 2012, to: