Beirut — Pope Benedict arrives in Lebanon on Friday to bring a message of peace to a region torn by civil war in neighbouring Syria and strained by violent Islamist protests against the United States in Libya and Egypt.
While those tensions overshadowed preparations for the religiously sensitive visit, security was low-key in Beirut and the only protests - against a film denigrating the Muslim Prophet Mohammad - were due to take place far from the capital.
Even the militant Shi’ite movement Hezbollah has hung b anners along the airport highway greeting Benedict with a picture of him and texts in Arabic and French saying: “Hezbollah welcomes the pope in the homeland of coexistence”.
Nearby, the movement - which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group - put up Arabic-only banners for local consumption with a different message: “Welcome to you in the homeland of resistance.”
In Christian districts of the capital, pictures of the 85-year-old pope were plastered in every street and church bells rang out on Friday morning.
“The pope is with us,” was the headline in Al-Nahar newspaper, which said more than 5,000 military and security personnel were being deployed to protect the pontiff. Beirut airport was due to close to all air traffic for two hours shortly before his arrival at 1.45 pm (1045 GMT).
Beirut-based Samir Khalil Samir, a leading Catholic expert on Islam, did not expect major security problems despite anti-U.S. protests in Libya, Egypt and Yemen because he said all Lebanese communities saw the trip as a gesture of peace.
“He will bring a spiritual message - one with political consequences, of course, but spiritual,” he told Reuters.
Benedict, on his fourth trip to the Middle East as pope, will stress unity among the different Christian churches in the region and peace between Christians and Muslims during the visit, which will be restricted to Beirut and its surroundings and end on Sunday.