Balloons and white doves were released in the air as Pope Benedict XVI reached the entrance of Lebanon’s Presidential Palace on Saturday, in a visit to meet leaders of Lebanon's Muslim communities.
On the steps of the palace, in the Beirut suburb of Baabda, the pope first met with President Michel Sleiman and his wife.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the Parliament Speaker also arrived with their families to greet the Pope Benedict, as well as the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, Walid Jumblatt.
The pope was met with crowds of supporters, in their thousands, waving Lebanese and Vatican flags to welcome the pontiff.
The visit is aimed in part at bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
Pope Benedict said on Saturday that mankind should reject vengeance and instead pardon the offences of others, as he urged the Middle East’s Christians and Muslims to forge a harmonious society.
Those who desire to live in peace must have a change of heart, and that involves “rejecting revenge, acknowledging one’s faults, accepting apologies without demanding them and, not least, forgiveness,” he said.
“Only forgiveness, given and received, can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace,” he added in an address on the second day of his three-day visit to Lebanon.
The pontiff issued his call in a speech to Lebanon’s political and religious leaders as well as the diplomatic corps after meeting with them at the presidential palace on the second day of his three-day visit to Lebanon.
To that end, cultural, social and religious differences should lead to a new kind of fraternity “wherein what rightly unites us is a shared sense of the greatness of each person and the gift which others are to themselves, to those around them and to all humanity.”
“Verbal and physical violence must be rejected, for these are always an assault on human dignity, both of the perpetrator and the victim.”
He noted that Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the Middle East for centuries and that there is room for a pluralistic society.
“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 of society?
“The particular character of the Middle East consists in the centuries-old mix of diverse elements. Admittedly, they have fought one another, sadly that is also true. A pluralistic society can only exist on the basis of mutual respect, the desire to know the other and continuous dialogue.”
Central to that, the freedom “to profess and practice one’s religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone. The loss or attenuation of this freedom deprives the person of his or her sacred right to a spiritually integrated life.”
His address focused on the universal yearning of humanity for peace and how that can only come about through community, comprised of individual persons, whose aspirations and rights to a fulfilling life must be respected.
The encounter has been particularly poignant coming after several days of deadly violence as Muslims have protested against a U.S.-made film that mocks Islam.
Crowds stood behind a security barrier adorned with Lebanese and Vatican flags. Several triumphal arches extended from one side of the street to the other.
A statement by Baabda Presidential Palace said Sleiman “urges all citizens to gather starting 8 a.m. [Saturday] along the street leading to the Presidential Palace through which the Popemobile carrying the great visitor will pass, in order to catch a glimpse of [the Pope] and receive his blessing.”
Lebanon is a multi-faith country in which Muslims make up about 65 percent of the population and Christians the balance. The pope came to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to it and to the wider Middle East, which have been torn by violence, often sectarian, over the years.
“Why did God choose these lands? Why is their life so turbulent,” he asked.
“God chose these lands, I think, to be an example, to bear witness before the world that every man and woman has the possibility of concretely realizing his or her longing for peace and reconciliation. This aspiration is part of God’s eternal plan and he has impressed it deep within the human heart.”
The pope said the conditions for building and consolidating peace must be grounded in the dignity of
The pontiff, who arrived on Friday for a three-day visit, praised Lebanon as an example of “coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions” when he arrived at the airport.
Without referring expressly to the unrest, the pope warned that the country’s “equilibrium” is “extremely delicate.”
Lebanon has the largest Christian minority in the Middle East — forming around 40 percent of the country’s 4 million citizens. Even before this week’s anti-Western attacks, the country’s complex balance of religious and political groups was threatened by neighboring Syria’s descent into civil war.
Lebanon has an unwritten but rigorously followed tradition that the three top jobs are always reserved for members of those respective faith communities.
He will also deliver a speech to the assembled dignitaries on the common vocation of Christians and Muslims to be religions of peace.
Thousands of people, mostly Christians and including many children, lined the road leading to the palace in bright but pleasant sunshine, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope.
Lebanese and Vatican flags fluttered, and there was a festive atmosphere on the streets.
Zeina Khoury, a Maronite who lives nearby, said she, her husband and two children got up at 6:00 am to make sure they could find a place along the route.
"This is a blessing for Lebanon," she said. The pope's visit is "important because it can bring us peace and because it reminds us of the importance of living together."
"I brought my children to see the pope ... because it could be the only chance they will ever have in their life."