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Christians hold up Iraqi and Kurdish national flags, along with Pope Benedict XVI pictures, upon his arrival in Beirut to conduct an open-air Mass.
Christians hold up Iraqi and Kurdish national flags, along with Pope Benedict XVI pictures, upon his arrival in Beirut to conduct an open-air Mass.

Pope Benedict's Beirut Mass attended by 350,000

Pontiff urges all in Middle East to work together for peace, calling specifically for an end to the violence in Syria.

BEIRUT // Pope Benedict XVI yesterday urged people across the Middle East to work towards peace and reconciliation, calling specifically for an end to the violence in war-torn Syria.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church was speaking during an open-air Mass along Beirut's waterfront, which organisers said was attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

"May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence," he said at the end of the mass, which was conducted in French and Latin, with prayers also offered in Arabic, Armenian, Greek and English.

The pope also said that "in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary".

"I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity," he added on the third and final day of his first visit to Lebanon.

During a meeting with youth representatives on Saturday night, the pope spoke specifically of his admiration for the courage of young Syrians in the midst of the crisis in their country.

While there are no verifiable figures on the number of people killed in Syria since the uprising against the regime of president Bashar Al Assad began 18 months ago, opposition activists believe about 27,000 people have died in the violence.

Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said organisers estimated 350,000 people turned out yesterday for the Mass led by the 85-year-old, German-born pontiff.

Among those who attended were political leaders and public figures from across Lebanon's multiple religious communities, including representatives from the Shiite movement, Hizbollah.

Security was tightened in downtown Beirut, which was blocked to traffic, but the atmosphere was festive. Helicopters flew overhead and army patrols were deployed in the area for the event.

Throughout his visit, the pontiff has repeated calls for Christians to remain in the Middle East, where their religion was born. Many Arab Christians have emigrated over the years because of conflict, fears of persecution and poor economic conditions.

Pope Benedict has also urged greater cooperation between faiths, including Muslims and Christians in the Arab world, and also called for religious freedoms to be respected.

Among the throngs of pilgrims in Beirut yesterday, many waving Lebanese and Vatican flags while trying to shade themselves from the sun with white caps handed out by organisers, was Elie Srougi from Zahle in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region.

The 40-year-old said the pope's visit was needed at a time of great unrest in the Middle East.

"We need someone to push us up in Lebanon," he said of the country's Christians, who account for an estimated 35 per cent of the population. "We want to stay in our country. He told us to stay here and to be together with the Muslims."

George Rahal, a 43-year-old accountant from Tripoli, said he was reassured by Pope Benedict's message of peace, particularly given the turmoil in the region and the recent wave of violence sparked by a film that mocks Islam.

"He gave us hope to live in this country alongside all the different religions," he said. "We hope his visit can open minds and hearts."

Pope Benedict returned to Rome last night.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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