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Pope Visits Lebanon

A boy hangs out near his home in the Dbayeh Palestinian refugee camp, an all-Christian enclave outside Beirut, Lebanon. When he visits Lebanon Sept. 14-16, Pope Benedict XVI will deliver his document on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedica ted to Christians in the Middle East. (Photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec) 

31 Aug 2012 – By Francis X. Rocca

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Lebanon Sept. 14-16 — assuming spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria doesn’t force a last-minute cancellation of the trip — his purpose will be above all pastoral; and, as usual for papal trips, most of his remarks will focus on the spiritual.

Yet as the Syrian conflict exemplifies, the concerns of Christians in the Middle East are in many respects inseparable from politics; and however diplomatically the pope may word his statements, some will inevitably touch on the region’s political struggles and tensions.

Pope Benedict’s primary reason for visiting Lebanon is to deliver his document of reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East. At that gathering, bishops spoke out on a range of issues that included the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, dialogue with Islam and Judaism, and the emigration of Christians driven by persecution, military conflict and economic hardship.

Bishops at the synod also affirmed the value of “positive secularism” and of an idea of citizenship that recognized a person’s full rights and responsibilities in society without reference to religious affiliation. According to Michael La Civita of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, these are strikingly new concepts for the region, where sectarianism still dominates public as well as private life.

Pope Benedict may draw on the bishops’ vocabulary of secular citizenship when he addresses Lebanon’s political, religious and cultural leaders in the presidential palace Sept. 15. He is also likely to renew his earlier calls for the protection of religious minorities.

That cause has become an increasingly urgent one for Christians in the Middle East since the start of the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave that started in December 2010, leading to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and currently threatening the government of Syria.

Though they profess no love for the old regimes, many Middle Eastern Christians fear that revolution has furthered empowered Islamist extremism in the region, increasing the danger of attacks and persecution of the sort that Iraq’s Christians have suffered since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

According to Habib Malik, a professor of history at Lebanese American University, the pope in Lebanon will find an especially receptive audience for any talk of minority rights, since the country’s Muslim and Christian populations are both composed of a variety of smaller communities, and moderate Muslims there are also “scared of the radical elements in their midst.”

Yet, Pope Benedict knows from experience how sensitive a topic this is. In January 2011, after the pope denounced killings of Christians in Egypt and called for the protection of religious minorities, the Egyptian government recalled its ambassador to the Holy See, and the most prestigious university in the Sunni Muslim world, Cairo’s al-Azhar University, suspended its interreligious dialogue with the Vatican.

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Tags: Syria Lebanon Middle East Christians Pope Benedict XVI Syrian Conflict