Pope brings message of reconciliation to Lebanon

By The Associated Press

5.10.1997 reconciliation.htm

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Waving flags and tossing rose water, Lebanese of all faiths welcomed Pope John Paul II Saturday on his first visit to their country, still recovering from a bitter war between Muslims and Christians.

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Beirut to see the pope ride by in his glass-enclosed popemobile, past buildings still shattered by artillery and pocked by bullets from Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

In the crowd were Christian students in T-shirts, Muslim women in veils and old men in flowing Arab headdresses. Some ululated. Others chanted "Baba, Baba" - Arabic for pope. Onlookers showered the pope with rice in addition to the rose water, a traditional Arab welcome.

"You are now the image of hope for all the Lebanese people," President Elias Hrawi told the pontiff at the airport.

The warm greeting reflected a broad acceptance of the papal visit by virtually all Lebanese factions, from hard-line Christian to the militant Muslim Hezbollah.

Later Saturday, the 76-year-old pope was to meet with young people in a prayer service at Harissa, 17 miles north of Beirut and site of a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Speaking at the airport on arrival, the pope urged the Lebanese to commit themselves to "peace, reconciliation and fraternal life" by showing "forgiveness and by working in the service of the national community."

John Paul spoke of the many who "died in vain" during Lebanon's war, which grew out of the conflicts arising when Muslims became a majority in the traditionally Christian land. The war killed about 150,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

"That period, which has happily come to an end, is still present in everyone's memory and has left many scars on people's hearts," John Paul said.

The formal purpose of the trip was the delivery Sunday of a major document outlining his aims for the Catholic church in Lebanon.

The document is in response to a 1995 report by Lebanese bishops that urged both Syria and Israel to withdraw troops from Lebanon. Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon, has 40,000 troops here. Israeli forces and their Lebanese allies occupy 10% of the country in the south to guard against cross-border guerrilla attacks on Israel.

When asked on the papal flight whether his visit served as a warning to Syria over its military presence, the pope told reporters, "I'm going to Lebanon - sovereign Lebanon."

A sour note was sounded by Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shiite Muslim Amal militia movement and president of the Chamber of Deputies, who complained that the pope's itinerary did not include a trip to largely Shiite southern Lebanon.

"Lebanon has completed its pilgrimage (of peace) by receiving the pope, but the pope did not complete his pilgrimage because he did not to the south," he told reporters after meeting privately with the pontiff. He said the pope told him that his health prevented him from going to the area.

The pope's journey from the airport to the presidential palace, where he met the nation's leaders, led him past key sites the warfare that at various times pitted Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis against each other.

He passed the Shiite, Sunni Muslim and Christian neighborhoods that backed the warring militias, as well as the "Green Line" that for years separated the city's Muslim and Christian halves.

He also rode by the former Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps, where Christian forces massacred 800 Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims in 1982.

John Paul first expressed a desire to visit Lebanon in 1982, but the war, which started three years before he became pope, prevented him from doing so.

He has called Lebanon a "message" of religious coexistence, given its historic mix of faiths. With a Christian population of up to 1.4 million out of a population of 3.2 million, it a Christian outpost in the overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East.