Pope visits Lebanon amid ‘Prophet’ crisis

BEIRUT — Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace and reconciliation among religions Friday as violence over an anti-Islam movie spilled over into Lebanon within hours of his arrival in the tumultuous region.

The pope flew into Lebanon for a three-day visit despite the recent unrest — including civil war in Syria, a mob attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, and a string of violent protests across the Middle East stemming from the film, produced in the United States, which insults Islam.

“I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace,” the 85-year-old pope said upon arrival in Beirut, speaking under a canopy at the airport on a sultry afternoon. “As a friend of God and as a friend of men.”

He denounced religious fundamentalism, calling it “a falsification of religion.”

The crowd at the pope’s arrival was small as security kept most people away from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, which is named after a former prime minister who was assassinated in a 2005 bombing that some blame on the regime in Syria.

The pontiff was welcomed by top leaders, including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker, as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Cannons fired a 21-shots salute for the pope.

“Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region,” he said.

But just hours after the pope arrived, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad, portraying him as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester.

According to Lebanese security officials, a crowd angry over the film set fire to a KFC and a Hardee’s restaurant in the port city of Tripoli, 50 miles (85 kilometers) north of Beirut, sparking clashes with police. Police then opened fire, killing one of the attackers, the officials said.

At least 25 people were wounded in the melee, including 18 police who were hit with stones and glass. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Lebanese authorities tightened security for the pope, suspending weapons permits except for politicians’ bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and northern Christian areas. Army and police patrols were stationed along the airport road, which was lined with welcome banners.

Earlier Friday, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope said he never considered canceling the trip for security reasons, adding that “no one ever advised (me) to renounce this trip and personally, I have never considered this.”

He also praised the Arab Spring uprisings, which have ousted four long-time dictators.

“It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,” the pope said.

The turmoil stemming from the Arab Spring has deeply unsettled the Middle East’s Christian population, which fears being in the crossfire of rival Muslim groups.

Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Mideast — nearly 40 percent of the country’s 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics being the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.

Benedict, the third pope to visit Lebanon after Paul VI in 1964 and John Paul II in 1997, will be addressing concerns by the region’s bishops over the plight of Christians in the Middle East. War, political instability and economic hardship have driven thousands from their traditional communities, dating to early Christianity in the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere.

A Middle East without Christians, the pope said Friday, “would no longer be the Middle East.”

The pope also called for an end to weapons imports to Syria, where rebels say they are desperate for an influx of weapons to help them tip the balance against President Bashar Assad’s regime. According to activist estimates, some 23,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

“The import of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons the war could not continue,” he said. “Instead of the weapons import, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas of peace and creativity and find solutions to accept each other with our differences.”

The papal visit comes amid fears that Syria’s conflict might ignite tensions in Lebanon. Clashes in Lebanon between Syrian groups in recent months have killed more than two dozen people and left scores wounded.

The Christian community in Lebanon is divided between supporters and opponents of Assad. Among Assad’s supporters is former Lebanese prime minister and army commander Michel Aoun, a strong ally of the militant Hezbollah group.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, welcomed the pontiff’s visit, describing it as “extraordinary and historic.”

“I cannot forget the sad and painful events which have affected your beautiful country along the years,” Benedict said, referring to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, which left about 150,000 people dead.

“Looking at your country, I also come symbolically to all countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs,” he said.

After Friday’s ceremony at the airport, Benedict’s convoy drove through Beirut as army aircraft flew overhead for protection. The pope was on his way to the mountain town of Harisa, where he will stay at the Vatican Embassy.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi did not rule out that the pope would meet some supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group that has risen steadily over the decades from anti-Israel resistance group into Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Lombardi declined to say what the Vatican’s position is on the group.

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