, BEIRUT, Sept 14 – Pope Benedict XVI arrives on Friday for a three-day visit to Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country riven by sectarian tensions as fighting rages next door in Syria.
Religious pluralism and the welfare of Christians in the region were likely to top the agenda, but the pontiff was also expected to call for an end to the conflict in Syria and a halt to arming the two sides.
He will no doubt also call on Lebanon’s Christians to unite, divided as they are not only toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also on a political vision for their own country.
But the Vatican has said the pontiff will avoid intervening politically in his comments on Syria or tell Christians where their alliances should lie.
The pope, 85, faces a packed schedule in the majority-Muslim country, which will take him from the presidential palace in the Mediterranean seaside capital of Beirut to important Christian towns in the nearby mountains.
He will reach out to the 13 million or more Catholics in Lebanon and the Middle East, asking them to work for peace and democracy alongside moderate Islamists, in a period fraught with fears of a rise of fundamentalism.
Those concerns are particularly poignant as the region is rocked by deadly violence over a film mocking Islam that has cost the lives of the US ambassador in Libya and four other people.
Around 200 protesters took to the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Thursday to express outrage over the US-made film.
The pope hopes to advance the church’s sometimes difficult relationship with Islam. While in Lebanon, he will meet not only local Christian leaders but Muslim ones as well.
His choice of Lebanon for his Middle East trip is not a casual one: the multi-confessional society — in which top political posts are split among religious groups — was hailed by pope John Paul II as a model for the region.
As the balance of power continues to shift in the region and with Christian minorities increasingly agitated, the emphasis will be on religious pluralism.