Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque next to Martyrs Square in Beirut
On the first day of his high profile visit to Lebanon yesterday, Pope Benedict appealed to Christians, Jews and Muslims to 'root out' religious fundamentalism, as deadly unrest swept across the Middle East and violent protests took place in Lebanon.
Formally approving a series of recommendations emerging from a synod of bishops that examined the future of the Middle East's Christian minority, and its relations with Islam and Judaism, the Pope signed the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, during a service in Lebanon's basilica of St Paul in Harissa, hours after violent protests in nearby Tripoli, less than 70 kilometres away.
Security forces here are on high alert. The Pope’s arrival in the country came at the same time as a demonstrator was killed in clashes with security forces in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli during protests over a US produced film that is alleged to be offensive to Islam. Many of the protesters, who poured out of a mosque after weekly Muslim prayers, also chanted slogans against the Pope and tore down posters of the Pontif and banners put up to welcome him.
A KFC and a Hardee's fast food outlet was also attacked and set alight during the protests. Protesters also tried to attack a Burger King outlet but were beaten back by security forces.
In an address before signing the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, the Pope said the Church had heard "the troubled cry and could see the desperate faces of many men and women who experience grave human and material difficulties, who live amid powerful tensions in fear and uncertainty, who desire to follow Christ, yet often find themselves prevented from doing so."
He added: "I urge you to fear not, to stand firm in truth and in purity of faith."
The Pope's visit to the Middle East has coincided with a sharp increase in tension in the region, with the bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria continuing unabated and increasing outbreaks of violence in several Arab countries over the controversial low budget US produced film which has angered Muslims across the region.
The head of Lebanon’s Christians, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, has called the film insulting.
The film, 'Innocence of Muslims' depicts the Prophet Mohammad as a charlatan who authorized sexual abuse of children.
Pope Benedict arrived at Beirut Airport earlier in the day where he was greeted by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, a brass band and a 21-gun salute.
He was also welcomed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite Muslim, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, and their wives along with Lebanon's top religious Christian and Muslim leaders.
Under Lebanon’s complex confessional system, which is aimed at safeguarding the rights of all the country’s religious groups, the President of the country is always a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Parliament Speaker a Shiite.
President Sleiman, the only Christian head of state in the Middle East, walked alongside the pontiff to a specially constructed podium where the two men sat on a pair of burgundy upholstered wooden chairs.
At the podium Sleiman said: "Today Lebanon’s family with all its components and factions welcome your holiness." He added: "We hope that your visit will bring good to Lebanon, the people of this region and their countries including Christians of the East."
The Pope said Lebanon was an "example of coexistence in the Middle East and the world".
He said: "The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that, within a nation, there can exist cooperation between the various churches and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions."
The Papal motorcade then left the airport to travel to Harissa.
The militant Shiite movement Hizbollah, which the US has labeled a terrorist group, had hung banners along the airport highway in Arabic and French said: "Hizbollah welcomes the pope in the homeland of coexistence".
There were also banners in Arabic which said: "Welcome to you in the homeland of the resistance." The banners allude to the group’s role in the 2006 invasion of the country by Israel and its earlier military campaigns which many believe forced the Israeli government to end its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Central Beirut and the largely Christian areas in the east of the city are also covered with Papal and Lebanese flags as well as pictures of the Pope.
More than 5,000 members of a special security force comprised of police and Lebanese Army troops have been deployed around Beirut and in all the locations the pope will visit and travel along during his visit.
Demonstrators have attacked US embassies in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia. Protest were continuing in Libya where earlier this week the US Ambassador and three other Americans were killed in violence sparked by the US made film.
Tripoli has been a flashpoint for sectarian violence in recent weeks sparked by the continuing violence in neighbouring Syria. Fighting in the northern city 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.
Meanwhile, Tripoli-based radical preacher Sheikh Omar Bakri recently called on Muslims to prevent Pope Benedict from entering Lebanon because of remarks the Pope made in 2006 linking Islam to violence.
Later today the Pope will travel to the presidential palace at Baabda where he have talks with the president of Lebanon, as well as to the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament. He will then meet with the heads of Muslim communities before going on to pronounce an address before representatives from government, State institutions, the diplomatic corps, religious leaders and the world of culture.
The Pope will have lunch at the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate of Bzommar with patriarchs and bishops of Lebanon, members of the Special Council for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, and the papal entourage. In the evening he will deliver an address to young people gathered on the square in front of the Maronite Patriarchate at Bkerke.