By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Catholic News Service
BEIRUT – When Pope Benedict XVI stepped off the plane in Beirut Sept. 14, he said he had come to Lebanon, and to the Middle East in general, as a “pilgrim of peace.” In five major talks over the next three days, the Pope repeatedly called for peace and underscored the role of Christians in promoting it.
Yet his most eloquent message of hope to the troubled region lay not in the diplomatic language of his public statements, but in his very presence and the response it evoked from his hosts.
Throughout his trip, Pope Benedict limited himself to general statements of principle on the most contentious political issues, and he avoided some topics altogether.
His insistence that religious freedom is a basic human right and a prerequisite for social harmony was a bold statement in the context of a region where most countries restrict and even prohibit the practice of any faith besides Islam.
But like the document he came to Lebanon to present, a collection of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops dedicated to Christians in the Middle East, the Pope said nothing specific about where and how the region’s Christians are regularly deprived of that right.
The Pope twice deplored the human cost of the civil war in neighboring Syria, but his only practical recommendation for an end to the fighting there was a neutral call to end the importation of military arms, which he called a “grave sin.”
With regard to religiously inspired violence, the Pope made a single generic reference to terrorism and a possible allusion to the subject in the statement that “authentic faith does not lead to death.”
Pope Benedict said nothing at all about the incendiary subject that dominated news coverage in the run-up to his trip: an American-made anti-Islamic film that had inspired often-violent protests in at least a dozen Muslim countries, including Lebanon.
Awareness of that furor no doubt heightened the caution with which the Pope treated the most volatile topics during his trip. Ironically, the crisis may also have helped him to get his message across.
With turmoil over the movie spreading across the Middle East, the papal visit suddenly became a much more dramatic and thus more appealing story to the secular press, which probably gave it more coverage as a result, observed Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, who attended the papal events.
For the Lebanese, the Pope’s willingness to travel in spite of security concerns powerfully underscored his commitment to the country and the region.
“The mere fact that the Holy Father came at this difficult moment is an indication that Christians here are not forgotten,” said Habib Malik, a professor of history at Lebanese American University.
The Pope’s visit served as a showcase for Lebanon, which for years was a model of peaceful coexistence and religious freedom in the Middle East. The show of enthusiasm was a dramatic statement of unity to the outside world and to the Lebanese themselves.
Epitomizing the welcome by Muslim leaders, Lebanon’s grand mufti gave Pope Benedict a written message stating that “any attack on any Christian citizen is an attack on Islam.” And as Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper reported Sept. 17, Lebanon President Michel Suleiman cited the unanimity among political factions over the weekend in arguing that the “way to capitalize on the Pope’s visit is via dialogue.”