Pope Benedict calls Christians in the Middle East to promote peace
LEBANON – The Pope returned to Rome on September 16 after a three-day visit to Lebanon. Before his departure, he once again called upon the leaders of the Arab countries to stop the war. We present an overview of Benedict XVI’s visit and his message to the Middle East.
“The pope did not come here to solve the political problems of the Middle East, but to bring a message of hope and an appeal to Christians for communion. His wish is to encourage all Christians not to despair, so that they do not feel compelled to leave their country in order to be faithful to Christ. It is above all a journey of faith.” This is the summary of the Holy Father’s trip to Lebanon made by Cardinal Vingt-Trois as published in the September 16 edition of La Croix.
The Pope’s visit took place at a very unsettled moment throughout the world, just as violent demonstrations broke out across the Middle East in protest against a film “The Innocence of Muslims,” with clips available on the Internet, which was seemingly denigrating to the Muslims.
Within this volatile environment, the escalating fears of Eastern Christians were very clearly expressed by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai. “We in no way hide from you, Holy Father, our feelings of apprehensions and fear of the unknown future that we face as Christians.” The Patriarch continued, Your historic visit is a safety valve for a Christian community that is enduring instability and faithfully fighting to preserve its roots in its land…”
For three days, the Pope unceasingly called for peace in the Middle East. “Love the Muslims, pray for them, they are your brothers,” he commended the Middle East Bishops in his address on September 15. On September 16, during an open air Mass in Beirut attended by 350,000 faithful, the Holy Father indirectly called Bashar Al Assad to end the fighting. “May God grant to your country (Lebanon, ed), to Syria and the entire Middle East, the gift of peace of heart, the silence of weapons and an end of all violence (…) I call upon all Arab countries that as brothers, they may advance viable solutions that respect every person’s dignity, rights and religion”.
Pope Benedict, who, on his arrival in Lebanon on September 14, considered that supplying arms to Syria constituted a “grave sin,”, focused his Sunday address on the need for Christians in the region to work for peace: “Working for justice and peace in a world where violence continues to widen its trail of death and destruction is a matter of urgency in order to commit to a fraternal society.”
Let us not forget that according to Syrian Human Rights Watch, the conflict in Syria has already caused 27,000 deaths since it started 18 months ago.
The Pope and the two Springs
When asked about the Arab spring, the Pope replied: “In and of itself, the Arab spring is positive.” But he went on to say that: ”these cries of freedom” carry an element of “danger”, that of forgetting that “human freedom is always a shared freedom” which “supposes the tolerance of one’s neighbour”. Accordingly, the Pope does not see any future in a “renewal of Arab dignity” without the “Arab Christians”.
This highly challenging visit obviously went beyond Lebanon. The Pope also came, symbolically, to all the countries of the Middle East. It is in this context that he issued to some 15 million Eastern Christians the apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente”, a veritable roadmap drawn up almost two years after the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East held in the Vatican in October 2010, just prior to the Arab Spring.
The Maronite Patriarch considered that the Arab Spring had been anticipated by a “spiritual, Christian spring” in the form of the Synod. This 96 page document emphasises the historic presence of Christians as an “integral part” of the Middle East, a “healthy secularism”, the rejection of violence, the will to combat “strategies tending towards a monochromatic Middle East”, the “transparent management” of the Churches’ finances, the welcoming of Christian refugees and immigrants.
The Apostolic Exhortation equally opens a real, interreligious dialogue based on the faith in one God and Creator. It also points towards an ecumenism that is full of human fervour, spiritual and charitable in its evangelical truth and love. The Holy Father expressed his ardent wish “That in this region that has seen so much happen and heard so many words, the Gospel may continue to resonate as it did two thousand years ago”. All the Bishops, whether from Iraq, the Holy Land or Egypt, were given a copy of the Apostolic Exhortation to transmit the message to their faithful.
Christians must not leave
“It is providential that the signing of the Exhortation took place on the same day as the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The celebration of this feast was born in the East in 355 after the dedication of the Basilica of the Resurrection built on Golgotha and the tomb of our Lord(…). In the light of today’s feast and with a view to a most fruitful application of the Apostolic Exhortation, I invite all of you not to be afraid, to live in truth and to foster purity of the faith. Such is the language of the Glorious Cross”.
The Vatican is particularly concerned about the exodus of Christians living in the region. They represent just 5% of the population compared to 20% a century ago. Similarly, the Pope exhorted Catholics not to abandon the land of their forefathers: “While some native Middle Eastern Catholics, whether by necessity, through weariness or despair take the dramatic decision to leave the land of their ancestors, their families, their community of believers, others, on the contrary full of hope, choose to remain in their country and in their community. I encourage them to consolidate this loyalty and to remain firm in the faith.”
On the first day of his visit, the Pope recommended that Jews, Christians and Muslims together “Eradicate religious fundamentalism” which he perceives as a “fatal” threat.
Lebanon as a model
On September 15, the Holy Father maintained before political, religious and cultural leaders that “religious freedom is a fundamental right”. He appealed to Lebanon to be “an example” of peaceful coexistence among religions. The Pope’s remarks impose a great responsibility on the Lebanese. Marked by the memory of an inter faith civil war between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon is divided among Christians – one third of the population, themselves split among a dozen churches – and the Muslim majority within its four million inhabitants. These latter are divided among Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites and Druze.