Pope Benedict arriving in Lebanon on Friday for a three-day visit as civil war rages in neighboring Syria called for a halt to weapons imports to Syria which he said were a “grave sin.”
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope praised the Arab Spring, calling it a positive “cry for freedom” as long as it was accompanied by religious tolerance.
His three-day visit is expected to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to Christians and Muslims, said an AFP correspondent at Rafiq Hariri International Airport.
The pope, who left a rainy Rome late morning, arrived to sunny skies and pleasant temperatures.
A crowd of dignitaries and around 100 cheering supporters looked on, one holding up a banner that said “Joy to Lebanon. The pope has arrived.”
The 85-year-old pontiff carefully descended the steps from his Alitalia flight and was greeted by President Michel Suleiman, the Middle East’s only Christian head of state, to a 21-gun salute and as church bells rang out around the country.
While those tensions overshadowed preparations for the religiously sensitive visit, security was low-profile in Beirut and the only protests expected against his presence were due to take place far from the capital.
Even the armed Shiite group Hezbollah has hung banners along the airport highway greeting Benedict with a picture of him and texts in Arabic and French saying:
“Hezbollah welcomes the pope in the homeland of coexistence”.
“We are expecting good for the country with his visit, we are expecting peace to be in Lebanon and that the Lebanese will have all their wishes fulfilled, especially the peace which we want,” Lebanese citizen Hadi said.
The 85-year-old pope, on his fourth trip to the Middle East as pope, will stress unity among the different Christian churches in the region and peace between Christians and Muslims during the visit, which will be restricted to Beirut and its surroundings and end on Sunday.
The pope’s message of peace will especially be aimed toward Syria, whose border is only 50 km away and where an opposition group says more than 27,000 people have been killed in an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Clashes have occasionally spilled over into Lebanese territory, evoking fears of further fighting in a country still recovering from the sectarian civil war that raged from 1975 until 1990.
Tensions have been rising between Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, who generally back the uprising led by Syria’s Sunni majority and Shiites who usually support Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.