Pope Urges Arab Nations to Respect All Religions

At an open-air mass attended by 350,000 people in Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI called on Arab leaders to respect rights and religions of all and seek reconciliation in the Middle East, which is not only torn by Syria's civil war but also an anti-American outburst over a film on the Prophet Muhammad.

"May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East, the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence," Reuters quoted the pope as saying in a prayer after the mass in Beirut on Sunday, the last day of his three-day visit to Lebanon.

At the grand mass held near the front line of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, the 85-year-old pontiff reminded the Lebanese people that they "know all too well the tragedy of conflict and ... the cry of the widow and the orphan."

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"I appeal to the Arab countries that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person," said the pope, who arrived in Lebanon on Friday, at a time when an outrage over a film denigrating Muhammad was underway across the Middle East and North Africa region and beyond.

Demonstrations and violence against U.S. diplomats and people from the West in retaliation of the film, produced in the United States, have heightened the fear of Christians in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon who were already apprehensive about their future in the midst of the increasing influence of conservative Muslims after the fall of authoritarian regimes in the Arab Spring.

The pope seemed to suggest that Christians should not leave the region amid growing tensions. "In a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary," Benedict said.

The pope appeared to focus on Syria during his three-day visit to Lebanon. En route to Lebanon, Benedict told reporters aboard his plane that the Arab Spring had been "positive." "It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity." However, he criticized the 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 pope left for Rome on Sunday evening. At the departure ceremony in Beirut, he thanked Muslim leaders for attending his events. "I was able to see, during all my visit, how much your presence contributed to the success of my voyage," he said. "The Arab world and the whole world will have seen Christians and Muslims united in this troubled time to celebrate peace."

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 on Saturday urged Lebanon to be a model for religious coexistence. "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 said.

The day the pope arrived in Beirut, anti-America protesters burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant after Friday prayers in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. As they clashed with security forces, at least one person was killed and about two dozen people were injured.

However, Benedict made no public reference to the anti-Islam film during his three-day visit.

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