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Christians in the Muslim World

The public presence of Christians and their vocation

The legacy of the Pope’s visit to Lebanon: an initial assessment.

On Sunday 16 September Beirut woke up to find itself flooded with the songs of pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the city from every part of the country, and also from neighbouring Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, to take part in the Mass with Benedict XVI. The scene was impressive: streets totally devoid of cars (something almost incredible in the normally congested Lebanese capital), singing and the waving of Vatican and Lebanese banners at the heart of the Central District, the financial capital of the country, completely rebuilt since the devastation resulting from the civil war. And finally an enormous altar made of cedarwood, raised very close to the famous waterfront.



It is this visibility of the Christians that makes Lebanon unique in the region. In terms of absolute numbers Christians are more numerous both in Egypt and in Syria, but it is only in Lebanon that they can maintain a fully public presence. At the heart of the national Pact, renewed by the Taif Agreement after the end of the civil war, lies the principle that Christians and Muslims enjoy parity in their involvement in political life. A tangible sign of this accord: it was in fact a Lebanese, Charles Malik, who wanted to have the principle of religious freedom inserted in the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 in an unambiguous formulation including the option to change one’s faith.



Of course the system has gone through highs and lows and each community is always tempted to test its own strength against the others: it is for this reason that there has not been any recent population census. So there was a risk that even the mass on the waterfront in Beirut might become the occasion for a confrontation. But this did not happen. The pilgrims took the motto of the visit literally: “My peace I give to you”. From their gestures and from the comments made over the three very intense days, it emerged very clearly that this is the desire of the great majority of Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims.



“The Pope unites Lebanon and entrusts it to the young” was the headline in the daily an-Nahar, while its rival as-Safir spoke of the fundamentalism “that is a threat to us all”. In this sense – explains Antoine Messarra, member of the Lebanese Costitutional Council and involved for a very long time in Islamo-Christian dialogue – the visit of the Pope was providential because it helped towards the elimination of a vicious circle “of religions that frighten people and frightened religions”. Messarra's is a bold vision, seeing that one hour away from Beirut, in Tripoli, protests against the film on Muhammad have resulted in one death and dozens of wounded; but at least it is a dynamic vision that can liberate blocked energies. “Let us enjoy this moment of national concord” echoes Georges Corm, historian, formerly Minister of Finance: “in such dark times it is not something to be underestimated”. The letter that the muftis of the republican Qabbani, the highest Sunni authority, addressed to the Pope goes way beyond the ordinary gestures of courtesy: “Muslims and Christians – says the letter – have the same rights and duties”. And a warm welcome was given to the Pope by the Shiite representatives too.



A political success all along the line, then? Yes, but the Sunday readings on which the Pope's homily was based reminded the faithful who were present that this cannot be the end. Peter recognises in Jesus the Messiah, but he does not accept the cross. “By telling his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death, and then rise again, Jesus wants to make them understand his true identity. He is a Messiah who suffers, a Messiah who serves, and not some triumphant political saviour”. So – added the Pope – “the vocation of the Church and of each Christian is to serve others, as the Lord himself did, freely and impartially. Consequently, in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently needed!”. And during the recital of the Angelus Benedict XVI spoke about Syria, laying a very heavy emphasis on the need for respect for human dignity. “Those who wish to build peace must cease to see in the other an evil to be eliminated”.



Then the crowd went their way, passing in front of the Hariri Mosque just as the midday call to prayer sounded out. Getting onto the minibuses that took them home, the Lebanese took a moment the time to take their last photos, after three days of a visit that was already being universally rated as “historic”. They had so much to think about. And we too likewise.



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