Voices of Mideast Christians and Muslims about Pope Benedict’s visit to Beirut (pix)
Whenever he travels abroad, Pope Benedict delivers a series of speeches that journalists scan for their relevance to the situation in the country he’s visiting. This aspect has been especially important here in Lebanon, a multi-faith country that suffered through a 15-year-long civil war (1975-1990) fought along sectarian lines and now watches nervously as Syria’s bloody civil war unfolds along sectarian lines only 50 km (30 miles) from Beirut. So the majority of our stories have focused on his calls for an end to the violence in Syria and greater efforts to promote peace and religious co-existence in the region.
Another part of the story is the enthusiastic welcome Christians and some Muslims have given the pope as a messenger of peace. We’ve quoted several of them in our news stories. But our journalists, especially Erika Solomon, an Arabic-speaking American, have gathered so many of these quotes that I wanted to post a large selection of them here. They give more of the human flavour of the visit and what it means for the Christians who hear the pope’s message.
On Saturday evening, Pope Benedict addressed a youth rally outside the Maronite Patriarchate, which sits atop a mountain north of Beirut, overlooking the Mediterraneaan Sea (here’s our news story). There was a group of about 250 Iraqi Chaldean and Syriac Christians who had come from Baghdad and Irbil and were waving Iraqi and Kurdish flags. Iraq once had about 1.5 million Christians but the number are now believed to have dropped to fewer than 850,000 out of a population of around 30 million because of killings by militant Islamists and emigration abroad following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Click here for more on Iraqi Christians.
The fate of Iraq’s Christians is the nightmare other Christisnas in the region see facing their brethren in Syria.
Speaking of Benedict, Nuhaya Bassam, 33, from Baghdad said: “He’s the leader of Christians, our guiding light. We flew here 3 days ago to see him. It’s definitely worth the hassle. To us, he’s God’s representative on Earth. Who wouldn’t make the effort?”
“Especially at this time, his visit was important because of what this region is going through and what is still coming, which could be bad for Christians. Of course, Syria is on our minds,” he said.
Hani, 24 from Irbil in the Kurdish northern part of Iraq, was waving Kurdish flag even though he’s not Kurdish. “This is exciting because its my first opportunity to see the pope in the flesh” he said. “I’m so glad he decided to do this because if anyone needs him right now it is the Christians of the Middle East.”
He said he was particularly worried about Syria, where about 10 percent of the population is Christian and finds itself caught between the mostly Sunni insurgents and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. He said he also worried about what the conflict there meant for the future of Christians in the region.
“We are the historic heart of Christianity and it is painful to see it destroyed,” he said. “I am from Baghdad originally, so even though now I am in a much better situation, I really feel what Christians in Syria are feeling. I’ve been there myself. I hope his visit is inspiring for Christians to stay, but I would never demand it of them. The unknown that they are facing is something truly frightening. As for me, I will never leave. This is our land.”
George, 31, a Maronite student of Arabic literature from Beirut, said: “I’m not worried about Christians in Lebanon but I have a message for our Syrian brothers: Stay strong. Don’t leave, but stand up for yourselves… Christians shouldn’t blindly follow the rebels, but they shouldn’t put their faith in the regime either–it is a dictatorship. It doesn’t have their interests at heart. I say to them, don’t be afraid of opposition, stand up and be a force among them. The Arab Spring is our future too. So I encourage Syrian Christians not to make choices out of fear but to think of the kind of future they could have if they took part.”
Another Maronite, Katie Fahed, 26, is studying for a masters degree in education in Beirut. She said: “We came here not just to see the pope but each other — look at us, look at this celebration. Why only talk about fear and anxiety? Lets take a moment to be proud. I’m not worried about Christians in the Middle East. We are part of its history and always will be.”
A seminary student named Khudr Samaan, 26, was one of the few Syrians in the crowd (read here and also here about Syrian Christians). He said about the pope: “The moment he first arrived I was thrilled, here was our leader on the exact same place on the Earth as us. So, of course it is encouraging and inspiring. I want to tell other Syrians, don’t be afraid, God is with you, please perservere.”
“Of course, there is some sadness,” he admitted. “We’re sad for all the people we’ve lost (in Syria) …. My family couldn’t make it here because of the difficult conditions where we’re from. I don’t think I could make it back to them if I tried, either. So I’m stuck here a while.”
Father Boutrus Azaar, secretary general of the Catholic schools in Lebanon, was all smiles as the pope arrived. “The Holy Father’s visit raises our hopes and our strength as Christians and as citizens of our country… His message is not just about Christianity but about encouraging every human being to pursue a relationship with God.”
At the Mass on Sunday morning, a crowd estimated by organisers at 350,000 sat sweltering under a hot sun at the Beirut seafront. Many of the Mass-goers there said they were pleased that Benedict had come to the volatile region at a time when there were security concerns (our story here) because Muslims have been protesting violently against an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.
Eli Baalina, a 17-year-old Lebanese Maronite, said: “I’m impressed. I think it was a successful trip and it came at a perfect time, when things were heating up a bit. He gave us a chance to stop and think about the bigger things in life. This is my second time seeing the pope on this visit. I think the message that had the biggest impression on me was his message of tolerance and coexistence. That doesn’t just mean the way Muslims look at us, but the way we look at them. Its a good chance to reflect on the things like sectarianism and extremism, things that we all need to work to change about ourselves in this region.”
Patience from Nigeria, 20, has been working in Beirut for two years as a domestic worker. “I’m here just to see the pope, for me its about receiving his blessing,” she told Erika. “I know for people here, there were a lot of issues they are talking about for the region. But really, let’s not forget the big picture. This is for all the world. It is a time for all of us to think about peace and to work for it”
Julianne, 31, is a Roman Catholic maid from the Philippines. “Its a big opportunity for me because the pope never visits the Phillipines,” she said. “It’s really cool to be out here in this amazing crowd and show this to the world. Everyone thinks the Middle East is only about Muslims, but there is a big Christian community and we should celebrate too. I feel lucky to be here, it is an important moment for people of faith like me.”
Silwar, 27, a Chaldean Christian from Iraq, said his heart was filled with joy being here. “It’s a moment to remember in my life, to see our spiritual leader in our land. It’s a powerful way to send the message to Christians that our presence here is valued and remembered”
Fadi and Silva Mansour, a young Maronite couple, brought along their one-month-old baby. “It is a source of pride to be in the presence of the Messiah’s representative on Earth,” said Fadi, the husband. “We see his visit as a blessing on us all. He reminds us that whatever the challenges, it is worth the struggle to maintain our religious faith as well as to make every effort to stay here.”
Silva said she “wouldn’t miss it for all the world. Last month after I gave birth, I said I absolutely will not miss this. I want this to be one of the first spiritual experiences for my daughter. I think his message is to give us pride and encouragement that it is worth the effort to work for coexistence and understanding and to ensure Christians remain here.”
Out on the streets, our television crew interviewed a pilgrim from Cyprus named Sarkis who said: “We are here to support the pope and also to get support from him, because our experience has been when we listen to him we are touched and we are helped in our lives.”
Muslims also turned up to see the pope. The pope had official meetings with Muslim leaders here and several Muslim politicians have attended the different events, including the Mass. Even Mohammad Raad, leader of parliamentary group of the militant Shi’te movement Hezbollah — which the United States and Israel label as terrorist — was in the front rows at the Mass.
On Saturday, a Muslim named Amira Chabhoul was in the crowd outside the presidential palace, where Benedict delivered a speech to political, religious and cultural leaders (our news report is here). She said: “We came to see the pope to welcome him. We congratulate him for his visit in Lebanon, may he bring peace. He offers love to all Lebanon and the Lebanese people.”
Reuters TV met a Lebanese woman this morning named Lina, and she said: ” It is very nice and I am so happy that the pope came to Lebanon. I am not Christian and I really want to see him.”