St Ellie Armenian Catholic Church Beirut
Excitement is growing in Beirut as the city prepares to welcome Pope Benedict tomorrow. The largely Christian area of east Beirut and the centre of the city is already festooned with flags.
Pope Benedict is widely expected to call on Christians to remain in the Middle East during his three day visit, amid Vatican’s fears of an exodus of the region's 13 million Christians.
The Papal visit will include the publication of an 'apostolic exhortation', a document based on the results of a synod of Catholic bishops on the Middle East, which examined the increase in Christian emigration from the region, as well as regional security and the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking during his general audience in Rome on Wednesday the Pope outlined his hopes for the Middle East ahead of his trip. He said: "I urge all Christians in the Middle East, whether they be long-established or recently arrived, to be builders of peace and agents of reconciliation."
He called on governments to help Christians "continue to bear witness to Christ in these blessed lands, seeking communion and unity."
The huge political changes ushered in by the Arab Spring have increased tensions between Middle East Christians and Muslims and seen a surge in support for Islamist political parties, most notably in Egypt which is now governed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood following its spectacular election victory earlier this year.
Islamist militiamen in Libya this week murdered the American Ambassador to the country when they stormed the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi in a protest over a US produced film that is alleged to insult the Prophet Muhammad. Protesters also attacked the US embassy in Cairo over the film.
The increase in violence across the region and the rise of Islamist parties has left many Middle East Christians concerned about their rights and safety and is driving many to emigrate.
There has been a sharp increase in the number of reports of violence against Christians in the last two years, and while emigration of people of all religions is part of life in this part of the world, there appears to have been a sharp increase among Christians leaving amid fears of persecution and instances of abuse.
Because of the political sensitivity surrounding the issue of emigration there are no official statistics but a range of estimates put the current Christian population of the region at five per cent, down from around 20 per cent eighty years ago.
Other reports suggest the number of Christians in the Middle East could be halved by the end of the decade.
Lebanese political and religious groups have welcomed the Pope's visit, including Hizbollah, the Islamist political party and militia that is labeled a terrorist organization by Washington. Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, has called the pope’s visit "historic" but it is unclear whether Hizbollah MPs will be present at any of the Pope's meetings with religious and political leaders.
But Tripoli-based radical preacher Sheikh Omar Bakri has called on Muslims to prevent Pope Benedict from entering Lebanon because of remarks the Pope made in 2006 linking Islam to violence.
Despite the Vatican's attempts to heal the rift with the Muslim world following the Pope's decision to quote from a 14th century text, written by a Byzantine emperor, which read "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman", tensions still run high.
The Vatican insisted that the Pope was trying to point out that violence should never be committed in the name of religion, but the comments caused outcry across the Muslim world.