Pope Benedict continued his visit to Lebanon on Saturday, making a plea for religious tolerance in a region where Christians are routinely persecuted and anti-American demonstrations are raging.
Lebanon is a country where Sunnis, Shias, and Christians make up an incendiary mix that has managed to avoid serious sectarian strife since a long, bloody civil war that lasted from 1975-1990. Power is carefully divided among the sects, apportioning parliamentary representation and key offices according to religious beliefs.
The Pope tried to use Lebanon as an example of religious freedom and how societies can live in peace despite religious differences. Meanwhile, a short distance from where he was delivering his remarks in the port city of Tripoli, violent anti-US demonstrations broke out:
“Let us not forget that religious freedom is a fundamental right from which many other rights stem,” he said, speaking in French to government officials, foreign diplomats and religious leaders at the president palace in Mount Lebanon in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
He held up Lebanon, which is still rebuilding from a devastating 1975-1990 civil war largely fought on sectarian lines, as an example of coexistence for the region.
He said Christians and Muslims in Lebanon share the same space — at times in the same family — and asked, “If it is possible in families why not in entire societies?” Marriages where husband and wife are from different religious groups are not uncommon in Lebanon.
He said the freedom to practice one’s religion “without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone.”
Just hours after the pope arrived Friday, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad, portraying him as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester.
According to Lebanese security officials, a crowd angry over the film set fire to a KFC and a Hardee’s restaurant in the port city of Tripoli, 50 miles (85 kilometers) north of Beirut, sparking clashes with police. Police then opened fire, killing one of the attackers, the officials said.
At least 25 people were wounded in the melee, including 18 police who were hit with stones and glass. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The civil war in next door Syria is causing sectarian tensions in the region to skyrocket as everyone begins to take sides in the increasingly bitter and bloody struggle. This description from a priest of life in the Syrian flashpoint city of Homs is typical:
Thousands of Christians have fled areas where heavy fighting has taken place, including the once religiously mixed central city of Homs. Rebels have controlled Homs’ Christian neighborhoods of Hamidiyeh and Bustan Diwan since early February and most of the districts’ residents have fled.
On Saturday, a Syrian priest from Homs said the Archdiocese of Syriac Catholics in Hamidiyeh was torched this week. The motives behind the attack were unclear.
The priest, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told The Associated Press by telephone that the attack took place Thursday. He said residents tried for 14 hours to put out the raging fire because fire engines could not reach the area under rebel control. No further details were immediately available.
He said around 80,000 Christians used to live in Hamidiyeh but now only 85 people remain.
The persecution of Copts in Egypt led indirectly to the making of the anti-Muslim film that is being used as an excuse for the riots. One of the backers of the film is reportedly an Egyptian Copt who escaped the growing oppression of Christians in Egypt and came to America. Where the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, there is no “tolerance” for other religions as we in the West understand it. At least 100,000 Copts have fled the Brotherhood government of Egypt and there is a danger that most of the 10 millions Christians in Egypt would follow them.
It is likely the Pope’s plea for religious tolerance will fall on deaf ears. Christians all over the Muslim world are under siege from not only intolerant clerics and their fanatical followers, but from Muslim governments themselves. With no one to protect them, Christians will eventually either be forced to make the decision to emigrate, or submit to Islam.