BEIRUT (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI signed a major document calling on Catholics in the Middle East to engage in dialogue with Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim neighbors, but also to affirm and defend their right to live freely in the region where Christianity was born.

In a ceremony at the Melkite Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa Sept. 14, Pope Benedict signed the 90-page document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East. He was to formally present the document Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut.

A section dedicated to interreligious dialogue encouraged Christians to "esteem" the region's dominant religion, Islam, lamenting that "both sides have used doctrinal differences as a pretext for justifying, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization and even of persecution."

Yet in a reflection of the precarious position of Christians in most of the region today, where they frequently experience negative legal and social discrimination, the pope called for Arab societies to "move beyond tolerance to religious freedom."

The "pinnacle of all other freedoms," religious freedom is a "sacred and inalienable right," which includes the "freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one's beliefs in public," the pope wrote.

It is a civil crime in some Muslim countries for Muslims to convert to another faith and, in Saudi Arabia, Catholic priests have been arrested for celebrating Mass, even in private.

The papal document, called an apostolic exhortation, denounced "religious fundamentalism" as the opposite extreme of the secularization that Pope Benedict has often criticized in the context of contemporary Western society.

Fundamentalism, which "afflicts all religious communities," thrives on "economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion," the pope wrote. "It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons."

Many Christians in the Middle East have expressed growing alarm at the rise of Islamist extremism, especially since the so-called Arab Spring democracy movement has toppled or threatened secular regimes that guaranteed religious minorities the freedom to practice their faith.

Earlier in the day, the pope told reporters accompanying him on the plane from Rome that the Arab Spring represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a "renewed Arab identity." But he warned against the danger of forgetting that "human liberty is always a shared reality," and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

The apostolic exhortation criticized another aspect of social reality in the Middle East by denouncing the "wide variety of forms of discrimination" against women in the region.

"In recognition of their innate inclination to love and protect human life, and paying tribute to their specific contribution to education, health care, humanitarian work and the apostolic life," Pope Benedict wrote, "I believe that women should play, and be allowed to play, a greater part in public and ecclesial life."

In his speech at the document's signing, Pope Benedict observed that Sept. 14 was the feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, a celebration associated with the Emperor Constantine the Great, who in the year 313 granted religious freedom in the Roman Empire and was later baptized.

The pope urged Christians in the Middle East to "act concretely ... in a way like that of the Emperor Constantine, who could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination to enable them openly and freely to live their faith in Christ crucified, dead and risen for the salvation of all."

While the pope signed the document in an atmosphere of interreligious harmony, with Orthodox, Muslim and Druze leaders in the attendance at the basilica, the same day brought an outburst of religiously inspired violence to Lebanon.

During a protest against the American-made anti-Muslim film that prompted demonstrations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen earlier in the week, a group attempted to storm a Lebanese government building in the northern city of Tripoli. The resulting clashes left one person dead and 25 wounded, local media reported. According to Voice of Lebanon radio, Lebanese army troops were deployed to Tripoli to prevent further violence.

Mohammad Samak, the Muslim secretary-general of Lebanon's Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, told Catholic News Service that the violence had nothing to do with the pope's visit.

"All Muslim leaders and Muslim organizations -- political and religious -- they are all welcoming the Holy Father and welcoming his visit," Samak said. "I hope his visit will give more credibility to what we have affirmed as the message of Lebanon -- a country of conviviality between Christians and Muslims who are living peacefully and in harmony together for hundreds of years now."

Bishop Joseph Mouawad, vicar of Lebanon's Maronite Patriarchate, told CNS that the apostolic exhortation represents "a roadmap for Christians of the Middle East to live their renewal at all levels, especially at the level of communion."

The exhortation will also be a call to dialogue, he said, especially between Christians and Muslims.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said now church leaders in each Mideast country must "work on how to translate the exhortation into real life in our communities and also in our Muslim and Christian relationships."
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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

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BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon Sept. 14, saying that he came "as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men."

In his remarks at a welcoming ceremony at Beirut's airport, Pope Benedict praised Lebanon, with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims, for its distinctive record of "co-existence and respectful dialogue."

But speaking in a country that was devastated by a civil war from 1975 to 1990, the Pope acknowledged that Lebanese society's "equilibrium, which is presented everywhere as an example, is extremely delicate."

"Sometimes it seems about to snap like a bow which is overstretched or submitted to pressures," he said.

The Pope urged Lebanese to do everything possible to maintain this social equilibrium, which he said "should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs and consolidated with determination."

Earlier in the day, speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome, Pope Benedict addressed some of the turbulence currently afflicting the rest of the Middle East. He praised the so-called Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave that started in December 2010, leading to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and currently threatening the government of Syria, just across the border from Lebanon.

The Pope said the movement represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a "renewed Arab identity." But he warned against the danger of forgetting that "human liberty is always a shared reality," and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

Many Middle Eastern Christians fear that revolution has empowered Islamist extremism in the region, increasing the danger of attacks and persecution of the sort that Iraq's Christians have suffered since the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Asked about the current exodus of Christians from civil-war-torn Syria, the Pope noted that Muslims, too, have been fleeing the violence there. He went on to say that the best way to preserve the Christian presence in Syria was to promote peace, among other ways by restricting sales of military arms.

Speaking only three days after the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members, the Pope told reporters that he had never considered cancelling his visit to Lebanon out of security concerns, and that no one had advised him to do so.

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As war bears down from all sides, Lebanese Christians are waiting for their own Arab Spring. For the Middle East’s most Christian country, spring arrives with Pope Benedict’s visit to Beirut Sept. 14-16.

“The Pope’s visit comes as an important message of peace, not only for the Christians but also for the Muslims of the region,” Issam Bishara, Catholic Near East Welfare Association regional director, told The Catholic Register in an e-mail from Beirut.

With much larger Syria fully engulfed in civil and sectarian war to the north, east and south, fighting has already slipped across the border into Lebanon.

“Lebanon cannot but be affected by what is going on in Syria,” Bishara said.

Despite the raging war in Syria, Lebanese and Vatican officials expect the papal visit to proceed on schedule.

“I know that the visit is very well prepared and the security is under the control of the presidential guard,” said Bishara.

In Beirut on Sept. 15, Pope Benedict XVI will deliver an exhortation based on the 2010 Synod on the Middle East in Rome. The synod gathered bishops and patriarchs of the region with selected bishops from around the world to discuss the future of Christianity in the land of its birth. With a diminishing Christian population, deep divisions along religious lines and the increasing dominance of politicized forms of Islam, the bishops called for an enlarged secularism with room for all religious voices and institutions to contribute to society. Such a transformation has to begin with ideals of citizenship which transcend local allegiances of tribe, clan and family, said the bishops.

Keeping Lebanon at peace is critical for the future of the whole region, said Fr. Youssef Chedid, associate pastor at Toronto’s Our Lady of Lebanon parish.

“Lebanon is a key country in the (Middle) East in which everything that happens in Lebanon will have implications for the whole area, and vice versa,” he said.

Chedid was an expert advisor at the 2010 Synod on the Middle East. He views the Pope’s Sept. 15 exhortation as an opportunity to re-orient the Arab Spring.

“It’s more an autumn than a spring (so far),” said Chedid. “It hasn’t brought good news. It hasn’t brought events of social progress. It didn’t get better after all these revolutions.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s exhortation is an opportunity to change the channel on entrenched regional conflicts, said Chedid.

“We would hope that this exhortation will bring to the whole Middle East a new hope,” he said.
A form of secularism that respects and values the contributions of all religions, where majorities and minorities can speak as equals, is the best hope for Middle Eastern Christians, said Chedid.
“We don’t want to be considered second rate. We don’t want to live in a totalitarian regime. We want democracy that will care for all the social groups,” he said.

Chedid grew up in Lebanon under the rule of the militias. He worries that importing a war from Syria repeats the same mistake of Lebanon in the 1980s.

“It’s the war of outside parties with everyone supporting outside parties,” he said. “They’re doing their fight on our land.”

Countering the tendency for regional wars to seep into Lebanon, the Pope has the opportunity to export a vision of peace from Lebanon to the region, according to Chedid.

“Our hope after the visit of the Pope to Lebanon is that through Lebanon he will speak to all the Arab countries and he will help us to understand each other — to help us to have a good dialogue, not between the strong party and the weak party but between all of us as believers. We will have a dialogue that will care about everything on the social level and also the political level.”

This message matters when gun battles break out between Sunni and Alawite militants across Syria Street in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, said Bishara. The Alawites are loyal to the Assad family and its regime in Damascus. As in Syria, the Sunnis line up with rebel forces.

It isn’t just Lebanon’s Muslims who are picking sides in Syria’s war.

“Christians in Lebanon have already chosen sides. One group supports General (Michel) Aoun (founder of the Free Lebanon Party) whose allies are the Shiite Hezbollah and Speaker of the House Nabih Berri,” said Bishara. “Another Christian group is loyal to the chief of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, supported by the Sunnite political leaders headed by the previous Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.”
Aoun’s group is part of the March 8 Movement allied with Syria. Hariri is leader of the March 14 Alliance which opposes Syrian interference in Lebanon.

“The Church leadership in Lebanon, especially Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, has been trying to unify this schism for years — but with very little success,” said Bishara.

So far, all parties want to avoid the kind of militia-led politics that made Lebanon a failed state in the 1980s.

“Going back to the years of war when militias were in charge of Lebanon is very unlikely,” said Bishara. “The leadership of the different political groups have all experienced the devastation resulting from total loss of order by government and also know well that in the end they will all lose.”

Al-Rahi condemned the “so-called military councils of clans and sects” as fighting broke out in Tripoli. Al-Rahi is calling on Lebanon’s central government to exercise full control and maintain its independence.

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI will present a papal document addressing the church's concerns in the Middle East, meet with representatives of local Christian and Muslim communities, and address political and cultural leaders on a three-day visit to Lebanon Sept. 14-16.

Pope Benedict's primary task on the trip will be to present a document, called an apostolic exhortation, based on the deliberations of a special synod of bishops held at the Vatican in 2009.

That two-week meeting, which was attended by 185 bishops, most of them from the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See, focused on the precarious circumstances of 5.7 million Catholics in 16 Middle Eastern countries.

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BEIRUT - Warning that Lebanon is going through a critical juncture, Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai called for national dialogue to address the security and political situation in the country.

During his June 3 homily at Bkerke, just north of Beirut, the patriarch condemned the previous day's clashes in the northern coastal city of Tripoli between Sunni groups opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad and Alawites who support the Syrian leader. At least 14 people died and more than 50 were wounded.

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BEIRUT - The first time Thomas stepped inside a church, he was overcome with emotion.

"This was my dream, to see a church," Thomas recalled. "I entered, I forgot myself. I couldn't control myself from crying."

The Muslim man and his Ethiopian Orthodox wife had just arrived in Lebanon from Yemen, Thomas' homeland, seeking freedom of religion.

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. - The spiritual leader of Maronite Catholics urged Lebanese in the Detroit area to play a role in the salvation of their homeland during his pastoral visit May 13.

Patriarch Bechara Rai said people of Lebanese origin or heritage in America should use their experience of the way people of various ethnicities, religions and political persuasions live peacefully together in the U.S. to help forge a new civil pact among the contending factions in Lebanon.

"You are living in the great country of the United States, and here the allegiance is not to the person, it is not to the party, it is to the country. It is from you the solution must come," Patriarch Rai told the more than 850 people who attended a banquet in his honor in Shelby Township.

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BEIRUT (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI will visit Lebanon Sept. 14-16, Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai announced during Easter Mass at the patriarchal seat in Bkerke, Lebanon.

Patriarch Rai said April 8 that the Pope will meet with the country's religious and civil officials, including President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite Catholic. During an open-air Mass in Beirut Sept. 16, the Pope will present the apostolic exhortation on the October 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which met under the theme: "Communion and Witness."

In a statement, Sleiman said the pope's visit would affirm the depth of the "historical relations that tie Lebanon with the (Vatican) and will form an occasion to focus on Lebanon's position, message and role as a witness of freedom and coexistence."

It marks the pope's second visit to the Middle East; in May 2009 he visited Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The announcement comes amid increased concern over the plight of Christians across the Middle East, emigrating in increasing numbers.

Of Lebanon's population of nearly 4 million, approximately 33 percent are Christian, considered a high estimate. Half a century ago, Christians represented about half the population.

In Iraq, a Christian exodus since the American-led invasion in 2003 has reduced the Iraqi Christian population by two-thirds.

In an interview with Vatican Radio broadcast April 9, Archbisop Paul Sayah, vicar general of the Maronite Patriarchate, said the pope's visit would "inject a new dynamism," not only in the Lebanese society and Christians, but in the whole region.

Noting that the Christian presence in Lebanon has a "significant impact" on the country, Archbishop Sayah said the visit would "incite the Lebanese once again to play the role they are expected to play in this part of the world."

The archbishop said the apostolic exhortation would offer "a special message not only to Lebanon but also, and especially, to the countries of the region" where the outcome of the "so-called 'Arab Spring'" is still "not yet clear."

The pope's message, he said, will be especially important for the "tragic situation" in Syria, "which I am sure the Holy Father will address in one way or another."

The Arab world "badly needs a word of encouragement, a word of hope," he said, emphasizing that Christians in the region need directives on how to approach the "new reality" of the difficulties they face amid a revolution in their homeland.

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BEIRUT - Church aid workers scrambled to find housing for hundreds of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring Lebanon because of ongoing violence between Syrian forces and armed rebels.

About 200 families -- more than 1,000 people overall -- made their way to the border town of Qaa in the Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon March 5 and were struggling in the region's near-freezing temperatures.

Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, told Catholic News Service March 6 that "women and children and the elderly are coming out in the cold, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to seek safety."

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