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Pope arrives in Lebanon amid regional unrest

Pope Benedict XVI began his three-day visit to Lebanon on Friday by speaking out against the shipment of arms to Syria. His visit comes at a time of violent protests across the Middle East, sparked by a US-made film deemed offensive to Islam.


Pope Benedict XVI began a three-day visit to Lebanon on Friday, and called for peace at a time of great turmoil in the Middle East, saying the import of weapons to Syria during the country's civil war is a "grave sin.''

The papal visit comes after a week of unrest in the region sparked by an amateur film that some Muslims felt was insulting to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. Protests in Egypt were followed by an attack on the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi on Tuesday that killed the American ambassador and three other diplomatic staff.

An attack on the US embassy in Yemen on Thursday left at least four people dead. One person was reported dead and a further 25 injured on Friday as hundreds gathered to protest against the film in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

"I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace,'' the pope said upon his arrival in Beirut. "As a friend of God and as a friend of men.''

Earlier, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope called for an end to weapons imports to Syria and called them a sin. Syria's rebels have appealed for weapons shipments to help them fight the regime.

He also praised the Arab Spring uprisings, which have ousted four long-time dictators. "It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,'' the pope said.

The pontiff was welcomed by top leaders including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Cannons fired a 21-shots salute for the pope.

He is scheduled to meet with Christian and Muslim leaders over the weekend, as well as pay a visit to the presidential palace in Beirut and key Christian mountain towns.

The Vatican has said that the pope will avoid making political comments, such as telling the estimated 13 million Catholics in Lebanon and the Middle East what stance they should take on the region’s conflicts.

But not everyone wishes the pope to remain on the sidelines of the region’s more divisive issues. Some have called for the pope to use this visit as a chance to push for the creation of a Palestinian state. And Syria’s Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan has said he hopes the pontiff will demand a new round of negotiations in Syria.

Tight security

Lebanese authorities are enacting stringent security measures, suspending weapons permits except for politicians' bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and the northern Christian areas.

After a welcoming ceremony at the airport, the pope will be transferred to where he is staying in Harissa, in the mountains northeast of the capital.

While in Harissa, the pope is due to sign off on a final report from a synod of bishops he convened two years ago on the future of Christians in the Middle East.

On Saturday he will meet President Michel Sleiman, who is a Maronite, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, as well as Muslim religious leaders and members of the diplomatic corps. After a lunch with eastern patriarchs and bishops in Bzommar, the pope will meet with Lebanese youth at the Maronite patriarchate in the village of Bkerke.

The pope will hold a Sunday open-air mass at the Beirut City Centre Waterfront, where he will unveil the conclusions of the 2010 synod of bishops.

(FRANCE 24 with wires) 

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