BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon - Many Lebanese have spent as much time as possible indoors this winter, protecting themselves from this year's unusually brutal cold season.

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BEIRUT - Officials of a pontifical aid agency said they saw much that needed done in Lebanon -- if they could get beyond crisis mode.

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SED EL BOUSHRIEH, Lebanon - Aramaic, Syriac and different Arabic dialects from Iraq and eastern Syria can be heard on the narrow hilly streets of Sed El Boushrieh. Strings of Christmas lights adorn neighborhood churches and hang from balconies of apartments, whose residents many never return to their own homes in Iraq and Syria.

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BEIRUT - She wakes up before the rest of the family, prepares their breakfast and begins a long day of cleaning the house, washing clothes, cooking and taking care of the children.

Yet she's always thinking of her own family some 8,000 kilometres away.

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BEIRUT - Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, provincial leader of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for Lebanon and Syria, is still shaken by what she witnessed visiting Irbil, Iraq.

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BEIRUT - The memory of that brutal June evening in his home near Mosul, Iraq, brought 48-year-old Joseph, now a refugee in Lebanon, to tears.

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BEIRUT - Lebanon's Maronite Catholic bishops underscored their "full confidence" in the country's military and security forces as the Lebanese army battled Islamist militants' incursion into Lebanon near the border with Syria.

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BEIRUT - When Syrian refugees arrive in Lebanon, help begins with a phone call to the U.N. refugee agency -- if they can get through.

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VATICAN CITY - Instability and increasing violence in Syria have prompted Pope Benedict XVI to cancel the planned visit to the war-torn nation by a delegation of cardinals and bishops.

Instead, the pope announced Nov. 7, he has sent a smaller group to Lebanon to deliver a $1 million donation and boost the church's humanitarian response to the crisis.

The pope also appealed for dialogue to end the Syrian conflict, saying: "We have to do everything possible because one day it could be too late."

"I renew my invitation to the parties in conflict, and to all those who have the good of Syria at heart, to spare no effort in the search for peace and to pursue through dialogue the path to a just coexistence, in view of a suitable political solution of the conflict," Pope Benedict said at the end of his general audience in St. Peter's Square.

"I continue to follow with great concern the tragic situation of violent conflict in Syria, where the fighting has not ceased and each day the toll of victims rises, accompanied by the untold suffering of many civilians, especially those who have been forced to abandon their homes," he said.

He said he had hoped to send a delegation of three cardinals, three bishops and a priest to Syria during the world Synod of Bishops, which met for three weeks at the Vatican in October, to show solidarity with victims and encourage peace negotiations. The papal delegation to Damascus was to have included Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is chairman of the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

"Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances and developments, it was not possible to carry out this initiative as planned," the pope said, "and so I have decided to entrust a special mission to Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum," which promotes and coordinates Catholic charitable giving.

Together with Cor Unum's secretary, Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, and Michel Roy, secretary-general of the Vatican-based umbrella group of Catholic aid agencies, Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Sarah was to be in Lebanon Nov. 7-10, where he was to meet with priests, religious and lay representatives of Christian churches in Syria.

"He will visit a number of refugees from that country and will chair a meeting of Catholic charitable agencies to coordinate efforts, as the Holy See has urgently requested, to provide assistance to the Syrian people, inside and outside the country," the pope said of Cardinal Sarah's mandate.

The cardinal will deliver a $1 million donation made by participants in the Oct 7-28 synod and the pope himself. The money is to provide humanitarian aid and support local churches in an effort to bring some relief to those hit by the crisis, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters.

The papal delegation's visit itself is also meant to "prompt all sides involved, as well as those who hold dear the good of Syria, to seek a just and peaceful solution to the conflict, Father Lombardi added.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people since March 2011.

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September 19, 2012

Emissary of hope

As war raged in Syria and an anti-Muslim film ignited violence across the Arab world, Pope Benedict calmly arrived last week in Lebanon as a “pilgrim of peace.”

The 85-year-old pontiff would have been excused if, citing age and security concerns, he’d postponed this trip. During his three-day stay, 25 people were injured and a man killed in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, during protests aimed at an American film that mocks Islam. The day after he left, missiles from Syrian jets hit Lebanese territory. The region, habitually unsafe, is particularly dangerous right now.

The purpose of the trip was to officially endorse the Apostolic Exhortation that was drafted following the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. That task could have been accomplished in the Vatican, of course, and transmitted live worldwide by video-conferencing and Internet technology. Yet the Pope dismissed that option.

Instead, he made the right and courageous decision to stand beside the Christians of the region and, by his physical presence, acknowledge the hardships they endure by living in nations that are often hostile to Christianity. That simple act alone says much about the Pope. Then, addressing some 20,000 young people from several Middle East countries, he urged them to be the vanguard to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its birth.

Middle East Christians, facing social and economic discrimination and seeking safety for their families, have been emigrating in droves to Europe and North America. At the current pace, Christianity might virtually disappear from the region in a generation. It is asking much of young Christians to endure financial and religious hardship, but that is exactly what the Pope implored. To be effective, the message had to be delivered in person.

“I am aware of the difficulties you face daily, on account of instability and a lack of security, and your sense of being alone and on the margins,” he said. But, he added, “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future.”

The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation lays a common-sense framework for Middle East Christianity to endure. It emphasizes dialogue, respect, equality, tolerance and forgiveness among Christians, Muslims and Jews, while denouncing secularism and fundamentalism. The Pope urged young people to never be afraid or ashamed of being Christian and he affirmed their right to religious liberty, to live publicly as Christians and to participate fully in civil life.

The Pope arrived in Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace but departed as an emissary of inspiration and hope. He ignored the latest regional upheaval and chose boldly to stand among the anxious Christians to let them know in person that he will not abandon them. That may have been the most important message of all.

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BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, reassuring them and urging them to promote peace through religiously inspired service to their societies.

"Your sufferings are not in vain," the pope told a crowd of at least 350,000 at a sweltering outdoor Mass at Beirut's City Center Waterfront Sept. 16. "Remain ever hopeful because of Christ."

In his homily, Pope Benedict commented on the day's reading from the Gospel of St. Mark, in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Jesus is a "Messiah who suffers," the pope said, "a Messiah who serves, and not some triumphant political savior."

Speaking in a region riven by sectarian politics, where party loyalties are often determined by religious affiliation, the pope warned that people can invoke Jesus to "advance agendas which are not his, to raise false temporal hopes in his regard."

Pope Benedict told his listeners, whose travails of war and economic insecurity he had acknowledged repeatedly throughout his visit, that Christianity is essentially a faith of redemptive suffering.

"Following Jesus means taking up one's cross and following in his footsteps along a difficult path which leads not to earthly power or glory but, if necessary, to self-abandonment, to losing one's life for Christ and the Gospel in order to save it," he said.

Yet Pope Benedict also cited another of the day's Mass readings, the epistle of St. James, to emphasize the spiritual value of "concrete actions" and works, concluding that "service is a fundamental element" of Christian identity.

Addressing a region where Christian-run social services, including schools and health care facilities, are extensively used by the Muslim majority, the pope stressed the importance of "serving the poor, the outcast and the suffering," and called on Christians to be "servants of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East."

"This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will," Pope Benedict said.

During the homily, the only sound was the pope's voice and its echo from the loudspeakers. Many people leaned over and bowed their heads with eyes closed, so they could concentrate more deeply.

Following the Mass, the pope formally presented patriarchs and bishops of the Middle East with a document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to the region's Christians. In the 90-page document, called an apostolic exhortation, the pope called for religious freedom and warned of the dangers of fundamentalism.

Sheltered from the sun only by white baseball caps and the occasional umbrella, people had already packed the city's central district by 8 a.m., almost an hour-and-a-half before the pope arrived in the popemobile, which took him to the foot of the altar. In temperatures that rose into the high 80s, the pope celebrated Mass under a canopy while bishops and patriarchs on either side wiped their brows and fanned themselves with programs.

Aside from the complimentary white pope caps, people in the crowd improvised versions of sun protection with torn pieces of corrugated boxes tied around heads and papal and Lebanese flags worn as bandanas.

George Srour, 38, estimated that 20,000 people came from Zahle in a convoy of chartered school buses, leaving at 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Mass.

"We Christians must be united and participate" in the pope's visit, Srour told Catholic News Service, "otherwise there will be no more Lebanon. It will become like Iraq, and now Syria, with all the Christians leaving."
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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

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BEIRUT - Peace will not come to the Middle East until its nations enjoy religious freedom, since only the free practice of faith can inspire the region's diverse peoples to unite around basic human values, Pope Benedict XVI said Sept. 15.

The pope addressed a multifaith gathering of Lebanon's political, religious and cultural leaders at the presidential palace in Baabda on the second day of a three-day visit to the country.

Pope Benedict's travels coincided with a wave of often-violent protests -- prompted by an American-made film denigrating Islam -- in at least a dozen Muslim countries. On Sept. 14, protesters denounced the papal visit during a demonstration in the Lebanese city of Tripoli; one person died and 25 were wounded in a clash that followed.

In his speech to the nation's leaders, the pope did not refer specifically to any of the region's many past or present conflicts, including the current civil war in neighboring Syria, but noted that the "centuries-old mix" of cultures and religions in the Middle East has not always been peaceful.

Peace requires a pluralistic society based on "mutual respect, a desire to know the other, and continuous dialogue," the pope said, and such dialogue in turn depends on consciousness of sharing fundamental human values, cherished and sustained in common by different religions. Thus, he argued, "religious freedom is the basic right on which many rights depend."

The pope spoke after meeting privately with Lebanon's president and prime minister, the president of parliament, and leaders of the country's four major Muslim communities: Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Alawite. Lebanon's population is estimated to be about 60 percent Muslim and almost 40 percent Christian, with both groups divided into many smaller communities.

In an apparent reference to the many Middle Eastern countries that restrict the practice or expression of religions other than Islam, the pope said that freedom must go beyond "what nowadays passes for tolerance," which he said "does not eliminate cases of discrimination" but sometimes "even reinforces them."

"The freedom to profess and practice one's religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone," he said.

Those remarks echoed portions of a document that Pope Benedict signed the previous night in Harissa and was to present formally Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut. The document is a collection of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops dedicated to Christians in the Middle East.

In his talk in Baabda, the pope did not explicitly address the topic of religiously inspired violence, but included a single reference to terrorism and the assertion that "authentic faith does not lead to death."

He also said that peace requires a shared respect for human life and dignity. Those values are undermined not only by war, he said, but by a range of social ills, including unemployment, corruption, "different forms of trafficking," and an "economic and financial mindset which would subordinate 'being' to 'having.'"

The pope also warned against ideologies that he said "undermine the foundations of our society" by "questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family" -- an apparent reference to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, political and religious leaders should promote a "culture of peace" through education, which he said would encourage a "conversion of heart" characterized above all by a willingness to forgive.

"Only forgiveness, given and received," the pope said, "can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace."

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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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