Pope arrives in Beirut as a ‘pilgrim of peace’
BEIRUT // Calling himself a "pilgrim of peace", Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Beirut yesterday amid mounting unrest in the region and said the flow of weapons into Syria was a "grave sin."
The pope landed in Lebanon for a three-day visit after demonstrations against a film that mocks the Prophet Mohammed had spread across the region. Yesterday, one person was killed in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, as clashes broke out between security forces and protesters.
Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Rome, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church called for a peaceful resolution to the war in Syria, in which more than 20,000 people have been killed in during the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
"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."
Pope Benedict was welcomed by Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman, as well as the prime minister Najib Mikati and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. At Beirut International Airport, where one member of the small crowd held aloft a sign that read "have no fear, the pope is here", he said Lebanon - a state with 18 recognised religious sects - was as an example of cooperation between faiths. An estimated 35 per cent of Lebanon's 4 million people are Christians.
"I cannot forget the sad and painful events which have affected your beautiful country along the years," he said, speaking in French and referring to Lebanon's past conflicts.
"The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that, within a nation, there can exist cooperation between the various churches ... and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions," he said.
Leaders from across Lebanon's diverse religious spectrum welcomed the pope's visit, including Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, describing it as "extraordinary and historic". Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi did not rule out that the pope would meet some supporters of Hizbollah.
On Thursday, the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars called on Pope Benedict to apologise for 2006 remarks that were viewed as inflammatory towards Muslims. In that speech in the pope angered some Muslims who believed comments he made linked Islam with violence.
Syria's civil war rages only 50 kilometres east of Beirut and security has been stepped up for the visit. The pope said he had never considered cancelling his trip for security reasons saying that "no one ever advised [me] to renounce this trip and personally, I have never considered this".
Tensions are already high in Lebanon over the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where the violence is resulting in scores of deaths every day and forcing thousands to flee the country, including into Lebanon.
This is Pope Benedict's first visit to Lebanon. His predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II travelled here in 1997.
"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.
Before arriving in Beirut, the pontiff praised the Arab world's changing political landscape.
"It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity," he said.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters
Updated: September 15, 2012 04:00 AM