BEIRUT (Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s visit to Lebanon ranked as potentially his most dangerous even before this week’s protests in the Middle East raised the stakes, but he said on Friday he never considered calling it off for safety reasons.
Syria’s civil war rages only 50 km (30 miles) east of Beirut and the Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions it unleashed have sometimes spilled over the border to spark clashes that could upset the fragile peace Lebanon has had since its own war ended in 1990.
In addition, protests against a U.S.-made film Muslims say insults the Prophet Mohammad continued in Egypt and Yemen and spread to Malaysia, Bangladesh and Iraq. Islamist militants killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi on Thursday.
But Lebanon, despite its violent history, is a unique corner of the Arab world where many religious groups live in a shaky balance. The government and all the main groups supported the pope’s visit, mostly confined to Christian areas of Beirut and its surroundings.
“Nobody has advised me to cancel this voyage,” Benedict told journalists on the plane from Rome.
“I never thought of it because I know that the more complicated a situation becomes, the more necessary it is to send this signal of fraternity, encouragement and solidarity.”
A Christian woman outside his meeting with Christian clergy in Harissa northeast of Beirut said the rising tensions in the region were not the best atmosphere for the long-planned visit.
“But he can’t not come,” said the woman who gave her name only as Isabelle. “This was a big plan and it would be very defeating if he didn’t come.”
Security personnel were deployed in force along Benedict’s route from the airport into Beirut, amid welcoming posters including several from the militant Shi‘ite group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, the strongest armed force in the country, gave several assurances in advance that it supported the visit.
“In the name of the party and people of Hezbollah, we welcome the pope’s visit to Lebanon and will treat it as an exceptional and historic visit, as do the other Muslims and the Christians,” its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said.
With these assurances in Beirut, the main wild card would be militant Sunni Muslims, a minority centered in Tripoli 70 km (40 miles) to the north and Sidon 40 km (25 miles) to the south.
Violence broke out in Tripoli on Friday, with one protester killed and two others wounded in clashes with security forces in protests over the U.S. film and against the pope’s visit.
Rev Samir Khalil Samir, a Beirut-based Jesuit and one of the Vatican’s leading experts on Islam, said before the pope’s arrival that the visit had a high psychological significance as a sign of the Church’s solidarity with the region’s Christians.
“By coming here, he tells them that he shares their concerns. I am with you, don’t be afraid, he’s saying,” Samir said, noting the fears many Christians had of growing Islamist influence in Arab countries where uprisings overturned dictatorships.
The pope was due to meet Islamic religious leaders on Saturday. Early in his papacy, he angered Muslims by suggesting Islam was violent and irrational, but visits to Turkey in 2006 and Jordan in 2009 mostly eased those initial strains.
Questions about security for the visit arose in mid-August when, amid rising sectarian tensions because of Syria, Shi‘ite gunmen kidnapped more than 20 people in retaliation for the capture of one of their kinsmen in Syria.
Despite the tensions, all the main religious communities had reassured the Vatican that they welcomed Benedict’s visit, according to Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, papal envoy to Beirut.
The prominent Shi‘ite cleric Sayyed Ali Fadlallah followed up on this in his Friday sermon by urging his followers to express their anger at the controversial film with restraint.
Caccia said the Vatican always had to be alert to the danger of attacks during papal trips. “But the current context seems to give us reasonable guarantees, otherwise the trip would not have gone ahead,” he told Reuters on Monday.
“I am as tranquil as humanly possible,” he said, because of “reasonable guarantees” the Church had received that the visit would not be disrupted.
Editing by Alison Williams