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.