American anti-Muslim film triggers day of outrage
Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace and reconciliation among religions yesterday as violence over an anti-Islam film spilled 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 US ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, and 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. “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 Syria.
The pontiff was welcomed by senior leaders, including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker, as well as Christian and Muslim leaders. A 21-gun salute was fired.
Just hours after his arrival, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over the Innocence of Muslims film. According to Lebanese security officials, a crowd angry over the film set fire to a KFC restaurant in the port city of Tripoli, 50 miles north of Beirut, sparking clashes with police. Officers then opened fire, killing one of the attackers.
Lebanese authorities have tightened security for the pope’s visit, 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 yesterday, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope said he never considered cancelling 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 kicked-out four long-time dictators.
“It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more co-operation 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 Middle East – nearly 40 per cent of the country’s four million people, with Maronite Catholics being the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.
A Middle East without Christians, Benedict said yesterday, “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 hardware to help them tip the balance against president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. According to activist estimates, some 23,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
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.
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