Pope Benedict XVI charts way of peace for Middle East

Robert Mickens – 22 September 2012 (Tablet)
“May God grant to your country, to Syria and the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence!” the Pope told more than 300,000 Lebanese worshippers who had gathered on Sunday for an outdoor Mass along Beirut’s Mediterranean waterfront.

“I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity,” he said in French.

Pope Benedict’s stated purpose for the Friday-Sunday visit was to launch his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, a “road map” for the Church in the Middle East that was elaborated at a special Rome-based synod for the region in 2010. But most of his emphasis was on religious harmony and building peace.

“It is time for Muslims and Christians to unite in order to put an end to violence and war,” the 85-year-old Pope told a festive gathering of young people last Saturday. “It is vital that all the Middle East, seeing you, should understand that Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side-by-side without hatred, by respecting each one’s beliefs and joining together to build a free and humane society,” he said.

The Pope urged the Lebanese youth not to leave their homeland. “Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future.” He also counselled them not to “take refuge” from their frustrations in the “parallel worlds” of drugs, pornography, social networks or money.

In a major address earlier that day, Pope Benedict urged Lebanon’s political, cultural and religious leaders to do better at educating young people and all society in the ways of peace and respect for others. He said the “demanding” price of this “profound transformation of heart and mind” involved “rejecting revenge, acknowledging one’s faults, accepting apologies without demanding them and, not least, forgiveness”.

He said Lebanon’s vocation was to be an “example” to the rest of the Middle East of how Christians and Muslims can live in harmony. “It is not uncommon to see the two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole society?” he asked. In that address he also denounced the use of violence in religion.

The Pope said that peace in the Middle East also depended on how Christians of different denominations treated each other. “In these unstable times, so inclined to the violence which your region knows so well, it is even more necessary that Christ’s disciples give an authentic witness to their unity,” he said during a brief ecumenical meeting with Orthodox patriarchs and Protestant leaders before returning to Italy on Sunday.

This was Pope Benedict’s second and final foreign journey this year and his twenty-fourth since becoming Bishop of Rome. The only papal visit abroad announced so far for 2013 is to Rio de Janeiro next August for World Youth Day.