Pope calls for Christian-Muslim harmony in Mideast

Pope Benedict XVI urged Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims on Saturday to forge a harmonious, pluralistic society in which the dignity of each person is respected and the right to worship in peace is guaranteed.

Speaking to political and religious leaders on the second day of a three-day trip to Lebanon, he stressed that people must repudiate vengeance, acknowledge their own faults and offer forgiveness to each other.

Thousands of people, mostly Christians and including many children, had lined the road leading to the palace in bright but pleasant morning sunshine, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope as he headed to the presidential palace.

Among them were Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians and Palestinians who came to witness the first papal visit to Lebanon since the late John Paul II came in 1997.

The frail-looking 85-year-old pontiff, walking with the aid of a cane, first met President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite Christian.

Then, before talks with the Muslim leadership, he met Prime Minister Nagib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite.

Lebanon has an unwritten but rigorously followed tradition that the three top jobs are always reserved for members of those respective faith communities.

Those who desire to live in peace must have a change of heart, Benedict said, and that involves "rejecting revenge, acknowledging one’s faults, accepting apologies without demanding them and, not least, forgiveness."

He said the universal yearning of humanity for peace can only be realised through community, comprising individual persons whose aspirations and rights to a fulfilling life are respected.

Lebanon is a multi-faith country in which Muslims make up about 65 percent of the population and Christians the balance.

The pope came with a message of peace and reconciliation both to Lebanon and to the wider Middle East, which have been torn by violence, often sectarian, over the years.

"Why did God choose these lands? Why is their life so turbulent?" he asked.

"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 realising his or her longing for peace and reconciliation. This aspiration is part of God's eternal plan and he has impressed it deep within the human heart."

The pope said the conditions for building and consolidating peace must be grounded in the dignity of man.

Poverty, unemployment, corruption, addiction, exploitation and terrorism "not only cause unacceptable suffering to their victims but also a great impoverishment of human potential. We run the risk of being enslaved by an economic and financial mindset, which would subordinate 'being' to 'having'."

Without pointing fingers, he said "some ideologies undermine the foundations of society. We need to be conscious of these attacks on our efforts to build harmonious coexistence."

Cultural, social and religious differences should lead to a new kind of fraternity "wherein what rightly unites us is a shared sense of the greatness of each person and the gift which others are to themselves, to those around them and to all humanity."

"Verbal and physical violence must be rejected, for these are always an assault on human dignity, both of the perpetrator and the victim."

Benedict noted that Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the Middle East for centuries and that there is room for a pluralistic society.

"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 particular character of the Middle East consists in the centuries-old mix of diverse elements. Admittedly, they have fought one another, sadly that is also true. A pluralistic society can only exist on the basis of mutual respect, the desire to know the other and continuous dialogue."

Central to that, the freedom "to profess and practise one’s religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone."

Echoing his words, Lebanon's Sunni mufti, or spiritual leader, Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, said the events rocking the Arab world "bring us Muslims and Christians a light that shows us the path to a better tomorrow, though they also bring many dangers that are a threat to us.

"But just as we made our history together in the past, we will also make our future together, based on coexistence."

The pope's outreach to Muslims is particularly poignant as the region is rocked by the deadly violence over the anti-Islamist film that cost the lives of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans on Tuesday.

Also on Saturday, the pope met thousands of youth at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkerke, urging Muslims and Christians to "live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society."

Do as Christ did, he told them: "Be completely open to others, even if they belong to a different cultural, religious or national group. Making space for them, respecting them, being good to them, making them ever more rich in humanity and firm in the peace of the Lord."

Addressing a number of Syrians among them, he said: "I want to tell you how much I admire your courage," adding that he was "sad because of your suffering and your bereavement."

The pope returns to Rome on Sunday after celebrating an open-air mass at Beirut City Centre Waterfront.

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