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Pope Benedict XVI has made a plea for dialogue and reconciliation in the Middle East on the eve of his trip to Lebanon, amid continuing violence in neighbouring Syria.
The Pope will arrive in Lebanon on Friday for a three-day visit which will culminate with the celebration of an open air Mass at Beirut's City Centre Waterfront on Sunday.
Delivering the Angelus blessing from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo on the outskirts of Rome on Sunday, the Pope said: "My apostolic trip to Lebanon, and by extension to the whole of the Middle East, is taking place under the sign of peace. The commitment to dialogue and reconciliation must be the priority for all parties involved."
In addition to meeting with various religious leaders in multi-faith Lebanon, the 85 year-old pontiff will also meet Lebanon's Christian President Michel Suleiman and the country's Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Najib Mikati. It is unclear whether he will meet the Speaker of Lebanon's Parliament, Nabih Berri, a Shiite Muslim and vocal supporter of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The continuing violence in neighbouring Syria, now in its eighteenth month, has increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon and had led to speculation that the Vatican might cancel the trip on security grounds.
Last week, Prime Minister Mikati warned Lebanon's fractious communities would "all drown together" if they allowed Syria's civil war to spill over into Lebanon.
The announcement follows a number of violent incidents in Lebanon in recent months, reawakening fears that the country, which between 1975 and 1990 endured a bloody civil war in which up to a quarter of a million people are estimated to have been killed, could plunge into a renewed bout of sectarian conflict.
In August, Gulf Arab states advised their nationals to leave Lebanon after a local Shiite clan kidnapped 20 Syrians and a Turk in retaliation for the kidnapping by Syrian opposition groups of one of their kinsmen in Syria.
A number have since been released, but the fate of the Turk and remaining victims is unknown.
In May, eleven Lebanese Shiites were also kidnapped by Syrian rebels in northern Syria on their way back from a pilgrimage in Iran. One of the abducted was released last month but the remaining ten are still being held in Syria.
And fighting in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli last month left 17 dead and over 120 wounded, as gunmen loyal to Syrian President Assad from the Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, fought with anti-Assad gunmen from the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Speaking at the weekend, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Pope's decision to visit Lebanon at this time should be "considered an act of great courage and hope worldwide".
Lebanon wll be the third country the Pope has visited this year following trips to Mexico and Cuba in March, during which the octogenarian used a walking stick in public for the first time.
Because of the sensitivities surrounding sectarian divisions, there has been no official census in Lebanon since 1932. But Christians are currently estimated to account for between 35 and 39 per cent of the population, the largest percentage of Christians in any Middle East country.
The majority are members of the Maronite Church, which is in communion with the Roman Catholic Church and loyal to the Pope. There is also a smaller Roman Catholic congregation. Other Christian churches include the Greek Orthodox Church - the second largest Christian grouping, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholics, and Melkites among others.
Journalist Michael Glackin will be reporting for ICN from Beirut throughout Pope Benedict's visit. In a personal note on this first story he said: "Lot of excitement at Mass in west Beirut today when they announced there were free tickets for the waterfront Mass on Sunday. We have a huge Philippine community here which attends the English language Catholic Mass I go to in Hamra. The buzz was amazing. The priest ended up having to ask everyone to calm down - although he was laughing as well.