A day after arriving in Beirut, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday urged Lebanon to be a model of coexistence of Islam and Christianity for the restive Middle East. His three-day visit comes amid concerns over the future of minority Christians in the region where Islamism is on the rise.
"It is not uncommon to see the two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?" the pope asked during his address to political and religious leaders at the presidential palace on the second day of his visit.
"Why did God choose these lands? Why is their life so turbulent?" AFP quoted the 85-year-old pontiff as asking.
"God chose these lands, I think, to be an example, to bear witness before the world that every man and woman has the possibility of concretely realizing his or her longing for peace and reconciliation," he said. "This aspiration is part of God's eternal plan and he has impressed it deep within the human heart."
This is the pope's fourth visit to the Middle East, but first to Lebanon since the late John Paul II came in 1997. About 65 percent of the four million people in Lebanon are Muslim, mostly from Sunni, Shi'a and Alawite sects. Christians form over one-third of the population.
Benedict's visit comes at a time when a film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad has provoked outrage across the Middle East and North Africa region. Demonstrations against the film, produced in the United States and posted online, have heightened the fear of Christians in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon who have been apprehensive about their future in the midst of the increasing influence of conservative Muslims after the fall of authoritarian regimes in the Arab Spring.
After Friday prayers in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, protesters burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and clashed with security forces, which left at least one person dead and about two dozen people injured.
During his Saturday address, Benedict said living in peace requires a change of heart, which involves "rejecting revenge, acknowledging one's faults, accepting apologies without demanding them and, not least, forgiveness."
After he arrived at the airport on Friday, the pope said Lebanon was called "now more than ever, to be an example," and asked the people of that country "to testify with courage, in season and out of season, wherever you find yourselves, that God wants peace, that God entrusts peace to us," according to Reuters.
"The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that within a nation there can exist cooperation between the various churches and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions," he added.
En route to Lebanon, the pope told reporters aboard his plane that the Arab Spring has been "positive." "It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity," The Associated Press quoted him as saying.
The pope also criticized importing of weapons to Syria, saying it is a "grave sin." It is believed that while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the rebels in Syria, Iran is sending weapons to the Syrian government.
The German-born pontiff met President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite Christian, Prime Minister Nagib Mikati, a Sunni, and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi'ite.