Security forces have been placed on alert ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon, riven by religious rivalries and shaken by the conflict in neighboring Syria, the visit's coordinator said on Wednesday.
“All Lebanese security organizations are on a state of alert poised to protect His Holiness the Pope,” who will travel to the eastern Mediterranean country September 14-16, said Father Abdo Abou Kasm.
Referring to what he said was close coordination between Lebanese authorities and the Vatican; he said security had been reinforced and that “all eventualities had been considered... so that this visit will be crowned with success.”
But last month, a Jesuit priest who was recently forced to leave Syria for supporting the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, warned that the pope's safety could be at risk.
The pope “must ask for help from a secret service that can guarantee his security, because the Lebanese services are not sufficient in this situation,” Father Paolo Dall’Oglio warned.
Dall’Oglio, who was kicked out of Syria in June, added that Lebanon is fraught with risk because the current government “is in some ways still tied to the Syrian regime.”
The Lebanese government is dominated by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which is a close ally and client of the of Assad regime.
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim communities largely oppose Assad, while the Alawites, who belong to the same Shiite-offshoot minority as the Syrian leader, are pro-Damascus.
There have been deadly clashes in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Assad Muslim factions, but these have been confined to the northern port city of Tripoli.
The pope’s movements will be restricted to the capital, Beirut, and to nearby areas that are primarily Christian in the multi-confessional country.
But even Christians are divided over the Syrian question, with some opposing Assad and others backing him out of fears of an Islamist upsurge.
Addressing the tensions in the country, Abou Kasm said the “fears surrounding the visit are out of place. All the communities welcome the pope's visit, both Muslim and Christian.”
The 85-year-old German pontiff is set to meet with various religious leaders and emphasize in particular the need for peaceful coexistence between Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle East.