BEIRUT — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon for a three-day visit on Friday, showing support for Christians across the region at a time of great turmoil.
The pope’s visit, his fourth to the Middle East, comes as Christians in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon are expressing fears of a threat from conservative Muslims emboldened by the sweeping changes brought about by the Arab Spring.
Those fears were heightened this week as violent protests spurred by a video mocking the prophet Muhammad — promoted by radical members of the Coptic Christian community — swept the Muslim world. A new wave of anti-U.S. demonstrations was underway Friday, including in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Protesters burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant shortly after Friday prayers in Tripoli and clashed with Lebanese security forces, leaving at least one demonstrator dead and 25 people injured, according to a Lebanese security official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
Protesters also attempted to storm a government building in Tripoli a short while later but were stopped by security forces.
President Michel Suleiman, who is Christian, greeted the pope at Beirut’s airport along with the Lebanese prime minister and speaker of parliament. The pontiff’s arrival is likely to resonate deeply with Christians in neighboring Syria, who have tried to stay on the sidelines of the brutal civil conflict raging there but have been dragged in nonetheless and even directly targeted at times.
“I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men,” the pope said at the airport.
“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 added.
En route to Lebanon, the pope told reporters aboard his plane that the Arab Spring has been “positive,” according to the Associated Press. “It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,” he said.
The pope also said that importing weapons to Syria is a “grave sin,” AP reported. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are facing accusations of arming the rebels in Syria, while Iran has been accused of funneling weapons to the Syrian government.
It’s unlikely that the pope will address the rise of Islamists in the region directly in public comments, analysts say. Instead, he is expected to preach a message of unity between Christians and Muslims.
Syrian Christians are deeply wary of the rebel Free Syrian Army because of reports of hard-line jihadists among the fighters, some of whom have come from outside the country.
In anti-government protests in western Syria earlier this year, some hard-line Sunni Islamists reportedly chanted, “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut” — a chant that rhymes in Arabic. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and many members of his inner circle are part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Basilious Nassar, a 30-year-old Greek Orthodox priest, was shot and killed in the Syrian town of Hama last January as he reportedly tried to save a wounded man in the middle of a firefight. It’s not clear whether he was shot by rebels or government soldiers.
“The Christians of Syria are looking for someone to get them some peace,” said Mariana, a 26-year-old Christian from Aleppo who moved to Beirut a month ago and asked that only her first name be used because of concerns for her safety. “Overall they are happy with the pope’s visit because they want someone to support them. They’re scared of the Islamic rise to power.”
In Egypt, many Christians were shaken by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Ultra-conservative Salafists also did well in the parliamentary elections.
Christians in Lebanon are wedged between the Shiite militia and political party of Hezbollah on one side and Sunni conservatives who have felt empowered by the rise of the Sunni opposition in Syria on the other.
Rather than banding together, the Christian political parties in Lebanon have split, with one group supporting a faction that includes Hezbollah while another supports a faction that is now in the opposition and includes most Sunnis.
“Christians in Lebanon are, politically, what is keeping the peace between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Many Lebanese, regardless of their religious background, have welcomed the pope.
“The pope’s visit is to confirm that the Christian presence in the Middle East is important,” said Mustafa Dylani, a 55-year-old teacher who is Sunni. “He is using love as a weapon before a civil war starts between Christians and Muslims. Those who burn churches and make films about the prophet Muhammad are seeking to encourage this bloodshed.”
Lebanon has pulled out the stops for the visit. Huge billboards welcoming the pope line the Beirut airport highway and Vatican flags are strung up across the city. Church bells welcoming the pope rang out in several neighborhoods across Beirut on Friday morning.
Hezbollah has even placed posters along the airport road which read, “Welcome to the nation of resistance.”
Late on Friday, Hezbollah’s al-Manar news channel announced a rally on Monday afternoon to protest the controversial anti-Islam video, a gathering clearly timed to avoid disruption of the Pope’s visit, which ends on Sunday.
A huge stage has been built for Sunday Mass at a seaside location that can reportedly hold up to 200,000 people. And security has also been beefed up across Beirut, with soldiers and military vehicles positioned at some key intersections.
The last papal visit to Lebanon was in 1997, when thousands of Christians from across the region traveled to Beirut to see John Paul II.
Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan contributed reporting.