Pope arrives in Lebanon with message of peace

By Victor L. Simpson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Among Assad's supporters is former Lebanese prime minister and army commander Michel Aoun, a strong ally of the militant Hezbollah group. Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the pontiff's visit, describing it as "extraordinary and historic."

"I cannot forget the sad and painful events which have affected your beautiful country along the years," Benedict XVI said, referring to Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war that left about 150,000 people dead.

"Looking at your county, I also come symbolically to all countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs," he said.

The turmoil stemming from the Arab Spring has deeply unsettled the Middle East's Christian population, which fears being in the cross-fire of rival Muslim groups.

The pope's visit also comes after several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have urged their citizens not to visit Lebanon because of security concerns over the recent violence.

But the pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters this week that the trip has never been in question and that Benedict has made clear he expects to be warmly welcomed. The government has declared Saturday an official holiday in Benedict's honor and given the day off to tens of thousands of workers and students so they can greet him.

Lombardi said Benedict may also meet with Syrian refugees, but that has not been confirmed. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday the number of Syrian refugees seeking its help now tops a quarter-million, with at least 66,915 in Lebanon.

The 85-year-old Benedict is likely to get a full briefing on the region's problems when he meets with Lebanese political and religious leaders and his own bishops from the region.

Vatican spokesman Lombardi did not rule out that the pope would meet some supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group that has risen steadily over the decades from anti-Israel resistance group into Lebanon's most powerful military and political force. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Lombardi declined to say what the Vatican's position is on the group.

The Lebanese army has imposed a 10-day ban on gliding over the coastal town of Jounieh and the mountain area of Harisa and its surroundings. Harisa, famous for its giant statue of the Virgin Mary, is the site of the Vatican ambassador's residence, where Benedict will stay. The main public event of his visit is Mass on Sunday on the Beirut waterfront.

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