For now there are no signs that the Pope’s visit will be postponed, as he is keen to show his closeness to Christians in the Middle East. It is in the interest of all forces in the field, not least Hezbollah, to ensure the Pope’s visit to the country goes smoothly
Andrea Tornielli (Vatican Insider)
Despite the clashes and disorder that have been going on in recent days in Tripoli, north west of the country, preparations for Benedict XVI’s trip to Lebanon are going ahead at full speed: the Pope and his collaborators are working on the speeches to be pronounced and on the post-Synodal exhortation text which is the fruit of the Synod for the Middle East in 2010. This will be signed and delivered to Middle Eastern Churches in Lebanon.
Lebanon has every right to be part of the Holy Land: Matthew the Apostle sets the journey undertaken by Jesus and his disciples’ in the Tyre and Sidon region and writes about the episode of the Canaanite woman who asks for her possessed daughter to be healed. It is a country where the century-long Christian presence has been a determining factor.
Newspapers recently reported alarming rumours about security in Lebanon, suggesting that the papal pilgrimage could be postponed at the last minute. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi immediately denied the rumour, informing the public that Benedict XVI’s Popemobile has already arrived in Beirut. Yesterday, Paolo Dell’Oglio – the Jesuit who had to leave the Monastery of St. Moses in Syria after 30 years of hard work promoting dialogue between Muslims and Christians – also spoke of the risks of the Pope’s visit. According to Fr. Dell’Oglio, the risk is posed by the close links between the current Lebanese government and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
It is true that diplomatic sources are not excluding the possibility of a postponement, should the situation in Syria worsen even further. They recall what happened in 1994 when John Paul II was forced to cancel a scheduled visit to Beirut because of a series of attacks against Christian churches. But the situation was different back then. The pilgrimage was postponed – until May 1997 – partly because of existing tensions between Christians. “At the moment there are no plans to postpone the visit,” Vatican sources say. “The Pope is keen to visit this country which has suffered and is still suffering; a delicate and problematic part of the world where Christians were and still are a constituent element and where they have traditionally always been present.”
The appeal to peace, co-existence, interreligious dialogue, the commitment towards a common good, the end to violence and above all the solidarity and support to Christians in the Middle East are the very aims of the Pope’s forthcoming trip. “It is important – Holy See sources stated – that Christians play an active role: they represent an element of stability and must continue to do so in this moment of great change and uncertainty for the future of the entire region.”
Despite Lebanon’s proximity to and dependence on Syria, the situation in the country appears generally calm and it is unlikely anyone will want to destabilise the country by opening any new Pandora’s boxes. Especially Hezbollah, the “Party of God”, a Lebanese Shiite political party supported by Iran and Syria which has a military wing. Some Lebanese Christian factions are close to Hezbollah and in any case it is in the interests of all the main forces at play to ensure that the Pope’s visit goes smoothly, that he is able to say what he has to say about Christians, co-existence in the area and Syria.
One issue which is close to Ratzinger’s heart is youngsters. Benedict XVI will appear before a huge audience of young people – not just Christians – to whom he communicate in person a message of peace and dialogue, based on evangelical values. His message will be different from other appeals which too often focus on hate. This message will also be included in the post-Synodal exhortation, which will address the difficult situation faced by Christians in the Middle East but also the wealth of their traditions and rites and the role which this irreplaceable element of society must continue to perform.
After the hopes raised by the “Arab Spring”, which Christians were also at the forefront of, a moment of trouble and uncertainty has come: many Christian communities are afraid. Regimes which guaranteed their survival are now falling and there is a risk of plunging into chaos. Even in countries like Iraq, which are trying to come out of the difficult post-war transition period, Christians feel threatened by fundamentalism and the lack of security. But they do not want to be isolated in protected “ghettoes” and separated from the rest of the population they have lived side by side with for centuries.