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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