Today Pope Benedict concluded the first day of his three-day journey to Lebanon. Below are excerpts from the three addresses the Holy Father delivered on Day One of the trip, starting with his Q&A with journalists on the Beirut-bound airplane, the full transcript of which can be read here.
Q: In the context of the wave of desire for democracy which is underway in many countries of the Middle East through the so-called Arab Spring, and given the social conditions in the majority of these countries where Christians are a minority, is there not a risk of inevitable tensions between the dominant majority and the survival of Christianity?
A: In itself, the Arab spring is a positive thing: a desire for greater democracy, more liberty, more cooperation and a new Arab identity. This cry for liberty, which comes from a more culturally educated and professional young people, who want greater participation in political and social life, is positive progress which has been hailed by Christians as well. Bearing in mind the history of revolutions, we naturally know that this vital and positive cry for freedom risks forgetting one aspect – a fundamental dimension for freedom – which is tolerance of the other. The fact is that human freedom is always a shared freedom, which can only grow through sharing, solidarity and living together with certain rules. This is always the danger, as it is in this case. We must do all we can so that the concept of freedom, the desire for freedom goes in the direction of true freedom and does not forget tolerance and reconciliation which are essential elements for freedom. Thus also the Arab Spring requires a renewal in this centuries -old history. Christians and Arabs have built these lands and must live together. I also believe that it’s important to see the positive elements in these movements and, do all that is possible to ensure that freedom is correctly conceived and corresponds to a greater dialogue rather than the dominion of one over the other.
Q: Holy Father, in Syria, as in Iraq a while ago, many Christians feel obliged to leave their country with heavy hearts. What does the Catholic Church intend to do or say to help in this situation and to stem the flow of Christians from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries?
A: First of all I must say that not only Christians are leaving, but also Muslims. There is a great danger that Christians leave these lands and lose their presence there and we must do all that is possible to help them to stay. The most essential help would be the end of war and violence which causes this exodus. Therefore we must do all we can to halt the violence and encourage the possibility of staying together for the future. What can we do against war? Of course we can always spread a message of peace, insist that violence never resolves problems and strengthen the forces of peace. The work of journalists is important as they can help a great deal to show how violence destroys rather than builds anything, that it is of no use to anyone. Then maybe Christian gestures, days of prayer for the Middle East, for Christians and Muslims, to show the possibilities of dialogue and solutions. I also believe that there must be an end to the import of arms: without weapons, war could not continue. Instead of importing weapons, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas, peace and creativity. We should accept others in their diversity and make visible the mutual respect of religions, the respect for man as God’s creation and love of neighbour as a fundamental element of all religions. We must promote all possible actions, including material ones, to support the end of war and violence so that all can contribute to the rebuilding of the country.
Upon Pope Benedict’s arrival at Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut, a welcoming ceremony was held with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, members of Parliament, and religious and civil leaders. The Holy Father delivered the following remarks (full text here):
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, all members of the one Catholic Church in a fraternal spirit of communion with other Christians, and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions. Like me, you know that this equilibrium, which is presented everywhere as an example, is extremely delicate. Sometimes it seems about to snap like a bow which is overstretched or submitted to pressures which are too often partisan, even selfish, contrary and extraneous to Lebanese harmony and gentleness. This is where real moderation and great wisdom are tested. And reason must overcome one-sided passion in order to promote the greater good of all. Did not the great King Solomon, who knew Hiram, King of Tyre, consider that wisdom was the supreme virtue? This is why he pleaded to God for it insistently, and God gave him a wise and intelligent heart (1 Kg 3:9-12).
The links between Lebanon and the Successor of Peter are ancient and deep. Mr President, dear friends, I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men. Christ says, سَلامي أُعطيكُم, “My peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). And looking beyond your country, I also come symbolically to all the countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all the inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs. To them too Christ says: سَلامي أُعطيكُم. Your joys and sorrows are constantly present in the Pope’s prayers and I ask God to accompany you and to comfort you. Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region.
Later in the day Pope Benedict visited the Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa and signed the apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,” the final product of the October 2010 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. Publication of the post-synodal exhortation is the formal reason for the Holy Father’s trip to Lebanon; the Vatican’s official summary of the document can be read here.
After signing the document, Pope Benedict addressed those present:
How can we fail to thank God at every moment for all of you (cf. 1 Th 1:2; Part One of the Post-Synodal Exhortation), dear Christians of the Middle East! How can we fail to praise him for your courage and faith? How can we fail to thank him for the flame of his infinite love which you continue to keep alive and burning in these places which were the first to welcome his incarnate Son? How can we fail to praise and thank him for your efforts to build ecclesial and fraternal communion, and for the human solidarity which you constantly show to all God’s children?
It is here and now that we are called to celebrate the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, service over domination, humility over pride, and unity over division. In the light of today’s Feast, and in view of a fruitful application of the Exhortation, I urge all of you to fear not, to stand firm in truth and in purity of faith. This is the language of the cross, exalted and glorious! This is the “folly” of the cross: a folly capable of changing our sufferings into a declaration of love for God and mercy for our neighbour; a folly capable of transforming those who suffer because of their faith and identity into vessels of clay ready to be filled to overflowing by divine gifts more precious than gold (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-18). This is more than simply picturesque language: it is a pressing appeal to act concretely in a way which configures us ever more fully to Christ, in a way which helps the different Churches to reflect the beauty of the first community of believers (cf. Acts 2:41-47: Part Two of the Exhortation); in a way like that of the Emperor Constantine, who could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination to enable them openly and freely to live their faith in Christ crucified, dead and risen for the salvation of all.
“Fear not, little flock” (Lk 12:32) and remember the promise made to Constantine: “In this sign you will conquer!” Churches of the Middle East, fear not, for the Lord is truly with you, to the close of the age! Fear not, because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you!
The full text of the Holy Father’s address at St. Paul’s Basilica can be read here.