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Pope Benedict's message of peace for the Middle East

CWN - September 17, 2012

On Sunday, September 16, as he concluded a 3-day trip to Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI remarked that his visit had provided an example of inter-faith unity at a time of extreme tensions in the Middle East.

“In these troubled times, the Arab world and indeed the entire world will have seen Christians and Muslims united in celebrating peace,” the Pope said as he prepared to board his return flight to Rome.

The primary purpose of the Pope’s trip was to release his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, concluding the work of the Synod for the Middle East. [See today’s separate CWN headline story.] But the timing of the trip—which took place as angry demonstrations were erupting all around the Islamic world—made the Pope’s visit a case study in inter-religious affairs.

Despite the turmoil in the region, and the fears of some observers who suggested that the violence in Syria could spill over into Lebanon during the Pope’s stay, the entire papal visit took place without incident. In fact Muslims seemed nearly as numerous as Lebanese Christians in the crowds that turned out to greet the Holy Father. Nevertheless the bitter tensions of the Middle East were foremost in the minds of those who heard the Pope’s public addresses, as he met with Lebanon’s political and social leaders, with Christians of various denominations, and with leaders of other faiths.

On Sunday morning, the Pope celebrated Mass at an outdoor site on the waterfront of Beirut, in an area that has been rebuilt since it was destroyed during the civil war that shook the country in the 1980s. There the Pope delivered a powerful appeal for peace, saying that “in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary for building a fraternal society, for building fellowship!”

After the Mass, the Pope repeated his call for peace in his Angelus message:

Sadly, the din of weapons continues to make itself heard, along with the cry of the widow and the orphan. Violence and hatred invade people’s lives, and the first victims are women and children. Why so much horror? Why so many dead? I appeal to the international community!

Shortly after his arrival in Lebanon on September 14, the Pope had spoken about the anguish of the troubled region, as it was described by the bishops who participated in the special Synod for the Middle East. During those deliberations, he said, “the entire Church was able to hear the troubled cry and see the desperate faces of many men and women who experience grave human and material difficulties, who live amid powerful tensions in fear and uncertainty.” Today, the Pope said, the Church is called to work tirelessly for peace, paving the way for “the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, service over domination, humility over pride, and unity over division.”

The Pontiff paid special tribute to the Christians who have remained in the Middle East, bearing witness to the Gospel at a time when many others have fled. During the Synod, he recalled, the worldwide Church “was able to admire all that is beautiful and noble in the churches in these lands.” He encouraged those Christians who remain to preserve the testimony of Christ in the region where Jesus preached.

Pope Benedict also had a special word of praise for his host country, Lebanon, noting that the nation has a proud tradition of religious tolerance. "The happy coexistence of Islam and Christianity, two religions that have helped to shape great cultures," he said, "is what makes for the originality of social, political and religious life in Lebanon.”

During his trip to Lebanon, the Pope did not signal any change in Vatican policies, nor did he issue any major political statements. He acknowledged the reality that many Christians have fled the region, and offered no specific ideas to stop the exodus. He lamented the continued violence in Syria, but did not shed new light on the Vatican’s stand regarding the Assad regime and its rebel opponents.

Yet the Pope’s visit did make an important statement to the world insofar as his call for dialogue and peace—issued at a time of heightened tensions, and respectfully welcomed by Muslim as well as Christian listeners—helped deflect the world’s attentions from angry anti-Western protests, and provide an example of a more promising path to peace.

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