Lebanese President Michel Sleimane met Pope Benedict XVI on Friday at a tense time for his multi-faith country due to the civil war in neighboring Syria and ahead of the nomination of a new Lebanese cardinal.
Sleimane, a Christian Maronite, thanked the pope for selecting as one of six new non-European cardinals to be named on Saturday the 72-year-old Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, patriarch of the Christian Maronite Church in Lebanon.
The pope’s choice to elevate the head of the Maronite Church is seen by observers as a sign of Vatican support for religious diversity in Lebanon, which Benedict said was a “model” for the region during a visit in September.
The pope has called for peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity and has said Christians should stay in the Middle East despite rising Islamism.
The head of Lebanon’s opposition, former prime minister and Sunni Muslim Saad Hariri, visited the pope last month and a papal envoy earlier this month visited Lebanon to meet with Syrian refugees and humanitarian organizations operating there.
The Catholic missionary news agency Fides said a representative of the Shiite party Hezbollah, Ghalib Abou Zeinab, who oversees relations with Christians, will also be at the ceremony for the new cardinals on Saturday.
Fides said a Hezbollah delegation earlier this month visited the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke near Beirut to congratulate him on his nomination.
An October car bombing in Beirut exacerbated tensions in Lebanon which has seen political and security spillovers from the 19-month conflict in Syria.
The Lebanese opposition has blamed the bombing that killed top security official Wissam al-Hassan on Syria and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
There has been frequent shelling into Lebanese territory by the Syrian army as well as deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of the Damascus regime.