Friday was a landmark for Christians in Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East: Pope Benedict XVI landed in Beirut for a three-day visit during which he will conduct meetings with senior state officials and members from both Christian and Muslim religious communities. On the same day, violent protests erupted in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, protesting against the infamous anti-Islam film and the Holy See’s visit. The riots resulted in the torching of KFC and Hardee's – two American fast food restaurants – and one death.
Concurrently, Islamist demonstrators took to the streets in the southern Palestinian camp of Ain al-Hilweh, denouncing the Pope’s visit while waving Al-Qaeda and Islamist flags and slogans. The Pope’s visit comes at a time of turmoil in the Middle East, and the broader Muslim world, translating into attacks against U.S. interests, among which was the storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the killing of four consulate staff, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
What prompted the Pope’s visit to Lebanon during this particular time, and what could this mean for the region’s Christian minorities?
As it seems, the visit is of an official and religious character, fulfilling an invitation to visit the country by the Lebanese president about two years ago. What was originally planned to be a religious mission made sure to address political issues as well, as the Pope expressed his stance on the "Arab Spring", saying "it’s a positive thing: it’s the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity." But the Pope has a lot more on his mind: the Vatican fears for the future and fate of the region’s Christians amid the growing conflict and instability. The turmoil stemming from the Arab Spring has deeply unsettled the region’s Christian population, which fears being in the cross-fire of rival Muslim groups, as is the case in Syria as well as Iraq.
Benedict XVI picked Lebanon’s St Paul Basilica in Harissa to announce and sign the Apostolic Exhortation aimed at the Christians across the Middle East. This choice was only natural given that Lebanon is the Arab country with the largest Christian population – around 40 percent of its population – and the only one with a Christian head of state. Beyond Lebanon, the Pontiff’s visit aims to reassure Christians and other minorities in the region as well, such as Shiites, Alawites, Druzes, etc.
The Pope called for countries with diverse populations to adopt the 'Lebanese model' of tolerance and coexistence. Remarkable was the greeting prepared for the Holy See, which included Hezbollah who scrambled to ensure its presence at the various ceremonies was noticed, given that "relations between the 'Party of God' and the Vatican have always been good and dialogue has never stopped between the two," as one Hezbollah MP stated on Saturday.
The events of the Arab Spring and the subsequent ascent to power of Islamists have raised concerns over minorities' role and future in the region, particularly Christians. Egypt’s Copts are fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise and tightening grasp on state institutions. Christians in Iraq are emigrating in large numbers following a number of attacks and violence against the once-secure Christian population there. Syria’s 10 percent Christians are anxious about their future and role in a post-Assad era, one that is promising to be chaotic and muddled for years to come. Consequently, Christians in neighboring Lebanon are growing wary of a potential spillover of violence and instability and the mounting influx of Syrian refugees which will likely worsen socio-economic conditions, boost instability, and subsequently lead to increased emigration among the Christians’ declining number. The radicalization of Islamist groups witnessed in Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and before that Iraq, is disquieting for those longing to live in a peaceful Middle East.
The Pope’s visit comes at a critical time, to reassure Christians, alleviate their concerns, and urge them not to leave their countries, despite alarming violence and armed conflict in many of these countries. He appealed for peace at a time of deep turmoil in the Middle East, calling for a halt to the flow of weapons into Syria, an act he described as a "grave sin" as the country endures a bloody civil war.
Whether the Pope's visit will fulfill its purpose has yet to be determined. What is certain, however, is that the region's future, stability, and prosperity depends largely and chiefly on the actions of its decision makers, peoples, and those in power, all of whom are called to take action to alter the course of events before it is too late. Actions speak louder than words, and the hopes of the good-willed.