Vatican (CWN)5.7 1997-- The ambition of Pope John Paul II to visit Lebanon, thwarted in 1982, 1989, and 1994, will finally be realized this weekend, when the Holy Father visits the country to draw a formal close to the synod on Lebanon held in November and December of 1995.

Aside from an airport stopover by Pope Paul VI, during his 1964 trip to Bombay, this will be the first time that a Pope has visited Lebanon-- a country which in the past boasted a Christian majority, but is becoming more and more dominated by Muslims. It is also Pope John Paul's first visit to the volatile Middle East.

The political and religious situation in Lebanon, after 15 years of ruinous civil war, poses three challenges for the Holy Father. The first is to caution the current Lebanese government, set in place by the Taef (Saudi Arabia) accords in 1989, which is largely dominated by Syria. Second is to convince extremists of both Christian and Muslim faiths to take up a permanent dialogue. Third is to persuade young Christians that they should not leave their homeland.

Dori Chamoun, a leader of Lebanon's Parti National Liberal, an opposition party with Christian ties, underlines the first challenge when he suggests that merely by being received from the government, the Pope is giving the regime a sort of legitimacy. Chamoun complains that the schedule of the papal visit allows no time for a meeting with the Christian opposition leadership.

But the Vatican is acutely aware of the problems with the current government in Beirut, which is effectively controlled by Syria. The documents of the Lebanese synod explicitly allude to the need for "the departure of the Syrian forces" now numbering in the tens of thousands-- as well as a pullback of the Israeli troops who routinely conduct military exercises inside southern Lebanon. Vatican officials also emphasize that the visit is "strictly pastoral." Although it is impossible to ignore the political situation, the Pope is not seeking to establish a new political climate, but to serve the faith of the Lebanese Church. Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic community, admits the "without doubt there will be repercussions in political life" from the Pope's visit. But he adds, "The Holy Father has the delicacy to say things in his own fashion."

The Pope's second challenge involves the mounting religious tensions in a land which was once a model of pluralism in the tense region of the Middle East. During the years of civil war there were 71,238 people killed, and 860,000 driven from their homes, while another 900,000 voluntarily chose exile. Of those who have left, roughly two- thirds have been Christians. Meanwhile the influx of as many as 900,000 workers from Syria has had a profound demographic impact on this country of 3 million inhabitants. A decade ago Lebanon had a Christian majority; now the proportions of Christians and Muslims are roughly even, with the Muslim population growing as the Christian remnant shrinks.

The Syrian-dominated regime has complicated this problem by offering advantages to friendly Muslim entrepreneurs, sometimes at the expense of Christians. And the steady growth of Muslim fundamentalism has added further tension, as well as the threat of violence triggered by religious ideology. Particularly because these Muslim ideologues are countered by some equally pugnacious Christian forces-- most of them affiliated with the Maronite Catholics-- the Pope is not likely to make an appeal to the Christian roots of Lebanon. Rather, he will probably re-emphasize his frequent plea for moderation, dialogue, and a return to the mutual respect that once flourished there.

The Pope's final challenge involves the youth of Lebanon. "The emigration of young Christians is a continuing drama," observed one Lebanese prelate visiting Rome recently. With declining economic prospects, and the threat of living under a hostile regime, young people are leaving in droves.