Pope Benedict urged multi-faith Lebanon on Saturday to be a model of peace and religious coexistence for the Middle East, which he called a turbulent region that “seems to endure interminable birth pangs”.
The pope, on the second day of a visit clouded by war in neighbouring Syria and protests across the Muslim world, told a gathering of Lebanese political, religious and cultural leaders that religious freedom was a basic right for all people.
Christianity and Islam have lived together in Lebanon for centuries, he said, sometimes within one family. “If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?” he asked.
“Lebanon is called, now more than ever, to be an example,” he said, inviting his audience “to testify with courage, in season and out of season, wherever you find yourselves, that God wants peace, that God entrusts peace to us”.
Lebanon - torn apart by a 1975-1990 sectarian civil war - is a religious mosaic of over four million people whose Muslim majority includes Sunnis, Shi’ites and Alawites. Christians, over one-third of the population, are divided into more than a dozen churches, six of them linked to the Vatican.
The German-born pontiff, 85, delivered his speech in French at the presidential palace after meeting President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite.
Outside the palace, a Muslim onlooker named Amira Chabchoul said: “We came to support the pope and also get support from him, because our experience has been that when we listen to him, we are touched and we are helped in our lives.”
On Friday hundreds of protesters against an anti-Islam film dodged gunfire and teargas to hurl stones at security forces in Lebanon’s Tripoli where one demonstrator was killed and two injured. Protesters chanted “We don’t want the pope” and “No more insults (to Islam)”.
In his remarks, Suleiman said the Syrian people should be able to “attain what they desire in terms of reform, freedom, democracy … through the appropriate dialogue and political means, away from any form of violence and coercion”.
Benedict began his visit on Friday with a call for an end to all arms supplies to Syria, where the tiny Christian minority fears reprisals if Islamists come to power at the end of the bloody insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.