Pope’s visit is a message of hope to Middle East
By Michael Swan
TORONTO (CCN) — As war bears down from all sides, Lebanese Christians are waiting for their own Arab Spring. For the Middle East’s most Christian country, spring arrives with Pope Benedict’s visit to Beirut Sept. 14 - 16.
With much larger Syria fully engulfed in civil and sectarian war to the
north, east and south, fighting has already slipped across the border
“Lebanon cannot but be affected by what is going on in Syria,” Bishara
Despite the raging war in Syria, Lebanese and Vatican officials expect
the papal visit to proceed on schedule.
“I know that the visit is very well prepared and the security is
under the control of the presidential guard,” said Bishara.
In Beirut on Sept. 15, Pope Benedict XVI will deliver an exhortation based on the 2010 Synod on the Middle East in Rome. The synod gathered bishops and patriarchs of the region with selected bishops from around the world to discuss the future of Christianity in the land of its birth. With a diminishing Christian population, deep divisions along religious lines and the increasing dominance of politicized forms of Islam, the bishops called for an enlarged secularism with room for all religious voices and institutions to contribute to society. Such a transformation has to begin with ideals of citizenship which transcend local allegiances of tribe, clan and family, said the bishops.
“Lebanon is a key country in the (Middle) East in which everything
that happens in Lebanon will have implications for the whole area, and
vice versa,” he said.
Chedid was an expert adviser at the 2010 Synod on the Middle
East. He views the pope’s Sept. 15 exhortation as an opportunity
to re-orient the Arab Spring.
“It’s more an autumn than a spring (so far),” said
Chedid. “It hasn’t brought good news. It hasn’t brought
events of social progress. It didn’t get better after all these
Pope Benedict XVI’s exhortation is an opportunity
to change the channel on entrenched regional conflicts, said Chedid.
“We would hope that this exhortation will bring to the whole Middle
East a new hope,” he said.
A form of secularism that respects and values the contributions of all
religions, where majorities and minorities can speak as equals, is the
best hope for Middle Eastern Christians, said Chedid.
“We don’t want to be considered second rate. We don’t
want to live in a totalitarian regime. We want democracy that will care
for all the social groups,” he said.
Chedid grew up in Lebanon under the rule of the militias. He worries
that importing a war from Syria repeats the same mistake of Lebanon in
“It’s the war of outside parties with everyone supporting
outside parties,” he said. “They’re doing their fight
on our land.”
Countering the tendency for regional wars to seep into Lebanon, the pope
has the opportunity to export a vision of peace from Lebanon to the region,
according to Chedid.
“Our hope after the visit of the pope to Lebanon is that through
Lebanon he will speak to all the Arab countries and he will help us to
understand each other — to help us to have a good dialogue, not
between the strong party and the weak party but between all of us as
believers. We will have a dialogue that will care about everything on
the social level and also the political level.”
This message matters when gun battles break out between
Sunni and Alawite militants across Syria Street in Tripoli, Lebanon’s
second largest city, said Bishara. The Alawites are loyal to the Assad
family and its regime in Damascus. As in Syria, the Sunnis line up with
It isn’t just Lebanon’s Muslims who are picking sides in
Aoun’s group is part of the March 8 Movement allied
with Syria. Hariri is leader of the March 14 Alliance which opposes Syrian
interference in Lebanon.
“The church leadership in Lebanon, especially Maronite Patriarch
Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, has been trying to unify this schism for years — but
with very little success,” said Bishara.
So far, all parties want to avoid the kind of militia-led politics that
made Lebanon a failed state in the 1980s.
“Going back to the years of war when militias were in charge of
Lebanon is very unlikely,” said Bishara. “The leadership
of the different political groups have all experienced the devastation
resulting from total loss of order by government and also know well that
in the end they will all lose.”
Al-Rahi condemned the “so-called military councils of clans and sects” as fighting broke out in Tripoli. Al-Rahi is calling on Lebanon’s central government to exercise full control and maintain its independence.