By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday called on Christians and Muslims to forge a common front against warfare, even as battles raged in neighboring Syria and the new U.N. peace envoy to that country conceded that the situation there was deteriorating.
“It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war,” Benedict, 85, told an enthusiastic youth gathering on the second day of his three-day visit to Lebanon.
The pontiff spoke directly to young Syrians who were in attendance, singling them out for praise. “I want to say how much I admire your courage,” Benedict told them. His comments come a day after the pontiff condemned importing arms to Syria as a “grave sin.”
The pope arrived here Friday as protests broke out in several Arab nations following the Internet distribution of a U.S.-made video that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad. In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, one person was killed as demonstrators burned down a U.S. fast-food outlet Friday and chanted anti-American and anti-papal slogans.
Still, the pope’s presence in Lebanon was warmly embraced by all religious factions. Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, lauded the papal visit as “extraordinary and historic.”
The pope, calling himself a “pilgrim of peace,” noted that the Middle East “seems to endure interminable birth pangs” but also “saw the birth of great religions and noble cultures.”
Despite the pope’s condemnation of arms trafficking to Syria, the conflict there is increasingly militarized, almost 18 months after the rebellion began.
On Saturday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the new U.N.-Arab League peace envoy, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital. The veteran Algerian diplomat later told reporters that the crisis was “getting worse” and conceded that he had no plan in hand to stem the escalating violence.
Brahimi assisted in brokering the 1989 Taif agreement, which helped put an end to the 15-year Lebanese civil war, a punishing episode of sectarian bloodletting that deeply scarred this nation of 4 million.
Peace and apostolic harmony emerged as major themes of the pope’s visit to Lebanon, where more than one-third of the population is Christian and the Muslim majority includes Sunni and Shiite, Druze and Alawite.
“In Lebanon, Christianity and Islam have lived side by side for centuries,” the pope told a gathering of dignitaries and religious leaders. “It is not uncommon to see the two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?”
Speaking separately to the assembled youth, the pope addressed one of the Vatican’s major preoccupations: the Christian exodus from the region.
In the past century, the church says, the Christian population in the Middle East plunged from about 20 percent of all residents to about 5 percent today.
Many fear that the new Islamist government in Egypt, and the prospect of an Islamic takeover in Syria, could accelerate the trend. Much of Iraq’s ancient Christian community fled in the face of religious persecution that followed the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, a secular autocrat who was tolerant of Christian religious practice.
“Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bittersweetness of emigration,” the pope told the young crowd in his evening speech. “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future and to take your place in society and in the church.”
In his address, Benedict called on young Muslims to “live in unity and harmony” with Christians, adding: “It is vital that the Middle East in general…should understand that Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and human society.”