Beirut (AsiaNews) All of
Lebanon is preparing to welcome the visit of Benedict XVI (14-16 September). Above
all the Christians are preparing themselves with national and diocesan meetings
for young people, couples, families, etc... The country is teeming with
Lebanese and Vatican flags, the highway that runs along the coast is festooned
with posters of the pope with meaningful quotes; illuminated billboards. Even
in the press every day, there are articles in preparation.
Everyone is waiting for his words of peace and reconciliation, even if the
situation in Syria, a short distance from here, is very tense. Despite this,
the government is doing everything to ensure safety. The fact that the journey
is going ahead, that it has not been postponed or canceled, is an important
sign. Many still do not believe it, but I will confirm and say: This coming of
Benedict XVI is already proof that the Pope knows of the danger involved, but
is not afraid. And if something were to happen - God forbid - it means: I share
your concerns and worries.
In fact, the Pope and the
Church at the Synod on the Middle East have pointed out that the Christians of
this region must not abandon these places because "we have a mission
here." But if the Pope had cancelled this visit at the first sign of
danger, it would have been a counter-witness. Instead, the Pope seems to be
saying: Your situation is difficult and we know it. But we want to help you and
to assure you that your presence is important. This journey is already a
message, for the very fact that it is going ahead.
Muslims, too, await the Pope
Muslim personalities have expressed their welcome to the Pope. Muslims are not
indifferent. The figure of the Pope and of this Pope in particular, has always
been a peaceful, constructive, figure which preaches understanding and
reconciliation, peace between Muslims and Christians. Lebanon moreover, is a
small and weak country and is content at the prospect of being in the global
spotlight for a few days.
On the other hand, Lebanon as an Arab country, is unique in the widespread
understanding between its Christian and Muslim communities. The fact that in
wanting to address the Middle East, the Pope chose Lebanon, means that this
country has a mission. And the Lebanese Muslims are aware of this. Faced with
issues such as religious freedom, freedom of conscience, the relationship with
modernity and the West, they have a much more moderate and open position
compared to all other Muslims in the region.
They have a leading role in
this area because they are supporters of coexistence. This position is not an
easy one because even in Lebanon conflicts can arise over nothing. Often there
are outside provocations: the problems of Syria, tensions with Iran, the
Islamists from Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Qatar, refugees from Iraq ...
Yet the Lebanese community maintains its position. In recent years, the
conflicts more often arise among Muslims themselves, between moderates - the
vast majority - and Salafi trends that are also present in Lebanon. And the
response is always in favor of moderation, not extremism. Yesterday, during a
speleological excursion to Jaita, in Metn, we saw hundreds of Muslim families. They
too are looking forward to the Pope's arrival.
Tensions in the
Our biggest fear comes from the situation in Syria. Every day we see Syrians
cross the border, Muslims and Christians, as refugees or as combatants, to
prolong the fight. The clashes in northern Lebanon are among Muslims. The army
is trying to isolate them, because both groups are armed. Hezbollah, for their
part, have tried to keep a low profile, full of prudence and wisdom. Hezbollah
supports the Syrian regime, but has made few declarations, if not in words.
If things should worsen in Syria, no one knows what might happen in Lebanon. We
hope that the coming of the Pope will help bring calm to the situation.
There are also tensions
between Iran and Israel. Tehran continuously promises to destroy Israel and
Israel threatens air strikes against Iranian nuclear plants. It seems to me
that the Iranian threats against Israel are only words. Iran has never attacked
Israel directly. And in such a delicate moment for Iran, it would be unwise to
do so. I fear so-called "preventive" attacks by Israel more. I hope
that at least during this visit, the presence of the Pope may bring some sense
of peace. An attack by either party would be an absolute mistake: an attack or
preventive war cannot be justified. It will not bring any fruit, if not a
further massacre of innocent people.
The tension is rising in
Syria, with the government bombing Aleppo with Albatros planes Saturday. At the
same time, there was a rebel attack on a military barracks targeting new
recruits. And it is always the common people who pay with their lives. In Syria
things are going so horribly wrong because everyone persists in the belief that
the final solution and victory for their side is close. I hope that at least
during these days of the Pope's visit, the two sides will implement a
Moreover, that the Pope proposes a moral and spiritual support, and reconciliation
The Apostolic Exhortation and mission
The Pope is to publish and disseminate the apostolic exhortation following on
from the Synod for the Middle Eastern Churches. All the dioceses are preparing
for the visit with debates, conferences, based on the issues discussed at the
Synod. What else will this visit bring? It will certainly depend on what
Christians put in place once the visit has ended.
Firstly the document will have to be studied. The newspapers will immediately
help in this, through summaries and quotes of the content. But above all, the
diocese will have to promote the study of the document through encounters
between adults, young people, tackling the social and ecumenical problems.
For me, one of the most important issues discussed at the Synod and which will
push the Exhortation is the reform of the relationship between clergy and
laity. Here in the Middle East the relationship between priest and his
community of lay people is a bit 'that between master and servants. In
comparison to the West, where lay people are much more engaged in the service
of the Church and of society, but unfortunately the priests decided, and tend
to command and ask the laity only to obey. It 's time to give more space for
the laity in the mission of the Church.
A second aspect is that we
hope to strengthen the commitment to ecumenism. The lay faithful are much more
open to ecumenical collaboration. Days ago I celebrated an ecumenical marriage
between a Catholic and a Greek-orthodox. I was there, the Orthodox priest was
there and then a monk. We celebrated the rites together taking turns with the
chants from the two rites in Arabic. The lay are also pressing for the common
celebration of important feasts, to have one calendar for Easter, Christmas
The third element is
relations with Muslims. Relations with them are good, especially if attempts to
arrive at theological agreements are avoided. The most important reality in
Lebanon is freedom of conscience, ie the possibility for an individual to
change his religion without any compulsion.
Yesterday a young monk who
accompanied me to a conference told me that his name was Muhammad. Before my
amazement, he said that five years ago he converted and then entered a
monastery. He and his family are still on relatively good terms, above all with
his brothers and mother, but not his father.
The meeting - which was on the relationship between Christians and Muslims -
was attended by several men and women who had converted. Among all, there was
even one who said: "I was a Muslim terrorist. Then thanks to Tele Lumiere
[a Lebanese Catholic television], I converted. Thanks to Brother Noor [the head
of the TV channel] I changed. Now I work at the same television".
Another person, of Moroccan origin, told me that after her conversion,
she came to live in Lebanon with her daughter, because of difficulties with her
It is worth noting that
Lebanon is the only country where you can convert from one religion to another
without the risk of being killed or severely marginalized by society. The
country still remembers the conversion of Fr. Afif Osseiran (1919-1988) who
came from an important Shiite family, and on becoming a Maronite priest
proclaimed himself a "good Muslim and a true Christian." He converted
at the age of 25, after reading the "Sermon on the Mount", and in
particular the word "And I say unto you, Love your enemies" (Mt 7). He
never renounced his dual reality! He died 25 years ago. The family, all
Muslims, even today, every year participate in a Mass in memory of their
beloved departed. What is possible in Lebanon is totally impossible in the rest
of the world[I].
The fourth point in the
program, fruit of the Synod and the Apostolic Exhortation is the priority for
the poor. The Church is committed through the laity, but the criticism that is
made is that the monks or bishops are too rich, or live in a manner far from
the reality of the poor. This criticism is often a valid one. I hope that the
Holy Father suggests that the Gospel be lived in a more rigorous manner and
closer to the weak.
Exhortation and the Arab Spring
A focus on poverty means that the Pope will also sow in the wake of the Arab
Spring. The movements that are changing the Middle Eastern world were born of a
demand for greater dignity for the poor and the scandal of poverty in many of
these countries reaches 40% of the population.
But the Arab Spring also emphasized values such as freedom of conscience,
freedom from dictatorship, democracy, equality between Christians and Muslims
in society, and between men and women. I believe that Christians after the
Synod and after the Apostolic Exhortation will be even greater players on this
stage, maintaining the characteristic of believers, working and fighting for
individual liberties - of press, association, conscience, opinion ... -. In the
West we affirm these freedoms, but often in an anarchic manner that borders on
the libertinism. This has pushed Muslims to turn away from the West, affirming
a greater rigor and fundamentalism.
The Arab Spring was an
absolute call to freedom, but not to freedom as understood in the West, which
knows no limits and is often expressed only in sexual freedom, exhibitionism,
provocation. Christians with their vision of freedom, can help Muslims to find
a middle ground, which excludes the secularism and excesses of the West on the
one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism on the other.
Another point that the Exhortation should strengthen is education. In Lebanon,
about 50% of young Christians and Muslims are up to 12 years of age go to
Catholic schools. It is very important to provide a common education and at the
same time ensure the deepening of their own tradition, Muslim or Christian. 35%
of students at our university St Joseph's are Muslims.
Finally, a wish: After the
Arab Spring, in almost all the countries concerned, attempts to forced Islamization
met with much popular resistance. This is the case in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt
and to some extent also in Syria. The Syrian Christians fear a religious
dictatorship that could replace a political dictatorship. In fact, according to
several witnesses, radical tendencies among the rebels and the Syrian
opposition constitute a minority. Thus, it does not seem right to fear the
power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Syria, although caution is
always required. The Syrian tradition is in fact marked by a positive
Here once again, the value
of Lebanon and the choice of the Pope emerge: Lebanon as a multiethnic and
multireligious country, open to all traditions, is to some extent an ideal for
the Arab Spring, that dreams of a secular state, open to all religious and
cultural traditions. And the Synod moves in this direction, in pursuit of a
common citizenship and not towards fundamentalism. By joining forces we can
ensure a bright future for the Middle East. Inch'Allah!
 See Jacques Keryell, Afif Osseiran (1919-1988). Un chemin
de vie (Paris: Le Cerf, 2009).