Pope Benedict XVI begins a three-day visit to Lebanon on Friday, the first in 15 years by a Roman Catholic pontiff. It comes at a time of increased tension for Lebanon’s Christians, who make up roughly one third of the country’s population.
Preparations are underway for a visit by the Pope to the small, religiously diverse nation of Lebanon, home to 18 official sects.
Christians have lived in these lands for some 2,000 years, starting before Islam began. But post-war events in Iraq, and the developments of the so-called "Arab Spring" have some Christians here concerned for the future.
“I’m afraid for my children, and my children’s children, but at this moment, I’m not scared,” said Lebanese Christian Fadia Asem. “We’re afraid of Syria and Lebanon becoming another Iraq,” added Joe Noura, another Christian in Lebanon.
Iraqi Christians suffered during sectarian violence after the fall of longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, and many fled the country.
“The situation of the Christians in the Middle East was more stable, more secure, at least on the surface. Certainly the Arab world still lived under dictatorships and authoritarian governments and people complained about that, but also there was a kind of stability there,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Institute for Middle East peace.
Archbishop Issam Darwich of Zahle, a Christian stronghold in Lebanon, hopes the pope can ease some of those tensions with his message of peace. He worries the days of peaceful co-existence are slipping away.
“We never had a problem with the Sunnis, the Shia, the Alawite, we lived together in peace, but now with what’s happened in Egypt, in Libya, in Iraq, we don’t know about the future because of the extremism; the Wahabis are in Syria and Lebanon and everywhere, and I don’t think they believe in the co-existence between Christians and Muslims,” he said.
The pontiff is expected to address the conflict in Syria, which has divided Lebanese Christians. And it's likely he will appeal to Lebanese Christians, who include Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox and others, not to leave their homeland.
“One Achilles heel that Christians of the Arab world have, is they have, in a way, an easy exit. It’s easier for them to move, to emigrate, to go to the West,” Salem said.
Pope Benedict will also use his Lebanon trip as an example of religious tolerance by meeting with heads of Muslim communities, most of which are welcoming his visit.