Pope's Lebanon visit clouded by Syria woes

Sept. 14, 2012 at 10:34 AM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon Friday where he encountered a country that has grown ever more divided by the conflict in neighboring Syria.

While he is expected to talk about the violence during his three-day visit, the pope is not expected to make any political statement, the BBC reported.

It's the first papal trip to the country in 15 years. Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, came in 1997.

The pope chose Lebanon for his Middle East trip "because he considers this country a joining point between Christians and Muslims," Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Beshara Rai told reporters before the pope's arrival.

Lebanon has the Middle East's largest percentage of Christians, accounting for nearly 40 percent of Lebanon's 4 million people.

Maronite Catholics are the largest sect, representing about 20 percent of the population. They trace their heritage back to the 4th century.

Lebanon recognizes 18 sects of four religions -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Druze.

"Islam and Christianity should unite in values in order to lay down the foundations for a true Arab Spring," he said, adding a true Arab Spring would be marked by peace and reconciliation among peoples.

"The Arab Spring we want is the one that will enhance Muslim-Christian coexistence," Rai said in Bkirki, about 10 miles northeast of Beirut. Bkirki is the seat of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, an Eastern Catholic church in full communion with the Holy See of Rome.

"The pope will definitely call for putting an end to the cycle of violence in Syria and a stop to any financial or armed support to both the Syrian regime and opposition," Rai said.

The 85-year-old pontiff was expected to meet with Lebanese officials and religious leaders Friday and Saturday and to hold a meeting with Christian youths.

He is to celebrate mass Sunday at the Beirut waterfront, where up to 80,000 people are expected to attend.

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