The Pope in Lebanon

Pope-Benedict-XVI-lebanonEarly this year, Pope Benedict had a three-day visit to Cuba, where he called for greater freedom and a bigger role for the Catholic Church in the communist-led nation, warning against radicals. Celebrating Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square to a crowd estimated by the Vatican at 300,000, the Pope said both Cuba and the world needed change ”but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth”. While urging Cubans to seek out ”authentic freedom” he also criticized ”restrictive economic measures imposed from outside” in reference to a half-century-long US embargo against Latin America’s single dictatorship.

The Pope in his homily cited a biblical passage in which men persecuted by a king preferred to face death rather than betray their conscience.”There are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism,” he told the crowd, including the communist party leadership.

Today, the Pope is arriving to Lebanon after the historical visit of his predecessor Pope John-Paul II in 1997.When John-Paul II came to Lebanon, the Lebanese government was largely dominated by Syria. The Pope had to convince extremists of both Christian and Muslim faiths to ignite a permanent dialogue with one another and to persuade young Christians not leave their homeland.The Pope called for the international community to help the Lebanese “live peacefully” within borders “respected by all.” The Pope also had to face the rising religious tensions in a land that was once a model of diversity in an agitated Middle East.Three years later, Israel pulled its troops out of South Lebanon and western Bekaa Valley in May 2000. Seven years later, Syrian troops evacuated Lebanon.

Did the papal visit make any difference?

Yes, John Paul II actually came here and said openly that Lebanon and the Lebanese needed to embrace change, and this change saw the light in 2005 after the assassination of PM Rafic Hariri.

In 2001, the Pope made another historic visit to Damascus where he was again received by all religious leaders. Tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians attended the Mass he celebrated in Damascus soccer stadium.

John Paul II told the crowd, “In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together with confidence and boldness and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding.”

The Pope’s presence there highlighted the rich mix of cultures and history of Syria especially by visiting Umayyad Mosque. He made a point on how Christianity and the preceding Roman Empire were deeply rooted in the Middle East. In the Umayyad Mosque, the head of St. John the Baptist is believed to be buried under a tomb.To the Pope it seemed it was simply a holy place for humanity to commune with God regardless of the religion. It was another mark of his deep respect for all individuals and all faith.

What is John Paul’s final legacy to Lebanon and the neighboring countries? I guess we are seeing it: dialogue, tolerance, political freedom; however, those values are threatened today.

Lebanon and the region have never been as divided as they are today.Benedict’s visit coincides within an absolute turmoil the Arab World is witnessing.With the new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with the chaos in Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon-last but not least-; we are all looking up at that visit and wondering

“What is the Pope bringing to us? Is his visit purely “pastoral” or far above that?

Meanwhile, our hearts are with him; God bless him.