Pope Benedict’s three-day apostolic journey to Lebanon kicks off Friday (the weekend’s itinerary can be found here), and the trip is expected to carry great significance not only for that country’s diverse Catholic communities, but for the larger Arab world as well, as violence directed at the West continues in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen and civil war rages in neighboring Syria. John Allen, at the National Catholic Reporter, believes that this trip—Benedict’s 24th foreign journey as pope—“could potentially be among his most consequential.”
The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has said that the Holy Father never considered postponing his Lebanon trip due to security concerns, and the Lebanese interior minister has emphasized that, despite its proximity to warring Syria, “Lebanon is a stable country.”
In the days leading up to the weekend’s events, many prominent Muslims, including the head of the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, have spoken positively about the Holy Father’s trip. John Allen reports:
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has publicly welcomed the visit, describing it as “extraordinary and historic.”
Other Muslim leaders have also struck positive notes, including Grand Mufti Sheikh Rashid Qabbani, a Sunni.
“The regimes in the Arab world are changing, and we all want to have security and equality and justice. I hope the pope’s visit will reflect that,” Qabbani said.
Shiite cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hasan al-Amin was equally enthusiastic.
“Christians are a major part of the Lebanese structure, and the pope’s visit emphasizes coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the country,” he said.
On Wednesday night, the “Asia News” agency reported that Christians and Muslims came together in Beirut’s Museum Square to stage a prayer vigil in advance of the pope’s arrival. Musical bands played, and Muslim read verses from the New Testament while a Christian read passages from the Qur’an.
One of the most notable aspects of this papal trip is the remarkable diversity of the Catholic communities Benedict will be addressing; a Vatican bulletin released today points out that the country’s capital city of Beirut is home to no fewer than five dioceses and one apostolic vicariate. Allen has a helpful run-down on these churches:
Lebanon recognizes eighteen different religious groups, among them seven separate Catholic churches. They are:
· The Maronite Church
· The Greek Melkite Church
· The Armenian Catholic Church
· The Syriac Catholic Church
· The Chaldean Catholic Church
· The Coptic Church
· The Latin Church
Four of these are patriarchates, presided over by their own patriarch: the Maronites, Greek-Melkites, Armenian Catholics and the Syriac Catholics.
While all these churches are in full communion with Rome, they retain their own separate leadership, jurisdiction, structures and finances.
It can also be expected that religious freedom will be a key theme of the Holy Father’s visit to the predominantly Muslim country. Jesuit scholar Father Samir Khalil Samir, of Beirut’s St. Joseph University, believes that Lebanon is uniquely suited for such a discussion, noting, “Lebanon is the only country where you can convert from one religion to another without the risk of being killed or severely marginalized by society. … What is possible in Lebanon is totally impossible in the rest of the world”:
The fact that in wanting to address the Middle East, the Pope chose Lebanon, means that this country has a mission. And the Lebanese Muslims are aware of this. Faced with issues such as religious freedom, freedom of conscience, the relationship with modernity and the West, they have a much more moderate and open position compared to all other Muslims in the region.
Lebanon as a multiethnic and multireligious country, open to all traditions, is to some extent an ideal for the Arab Spring, that dreams of a secular state, open to all religious and cultural traditions.
Hints of what Benedict may have to say on religious freedom and the unique position of Christians in the Middle East may be found in the homily he delivered at the close of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October 2010:
The words of the Lord Jesus may be applied to Christians in the Middle East: “There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). Indeed, even if they are few, they are bearers of the Good News of the love of God for man, love which revealed itself in the Holy Land in the person of Jesus Christ. This Word of salvation, strengthened with the grace of the Sacraments, resounds with particular potency in the places in which, by Divine Providence, it was written, and it is the only Word which is able to break that vicious circle of vengeance, hate, and violence. From a purified heart, in peace with God and neighbour, may intentions and initiatives for peace at local, national, and international levels be born. In these actions, to whose accomplishment the whole international community is called, Christians as full-fledged citizens can and must do their part with the spirit of the Beatitudes, becoming builders of peace and apostles of reconciliation to the benefit of all society.
Another contribution that Christians can bring to society is the promotion of an authentic freedom of religion and conscience, one of the fundamental human rights that each state should always respect. In numerous countries of the Middle East there exists freedom of belief, while the space given to the freedom to practice religion is often quite limited. Increasing this space of freedom becomes essential to guarantee to all the members of the various religious communities the true freedom to live and profess their faith. This topic could become the subject of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, a dialogue whose urgency and usefulness was reiterated by the Synodal Fathers.
The resolutions of the 2010 synod—approved and signed by the Holy Father—will be published as an apostolic exhortation on the last day of the Lebanon trip. UPDATE: The apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente” was signed by Pope Benedict XVI at the end of the first day of his trip. The official Vatican summary of the document can be read here.