BEIRUT (Reuters) - Pope Benedict urged multi-faith Lebanon on Saturday to be a model of religious peace for the Middle East, as a civil war raged in neighboring Syria, deepening sectarian divisions.
“Lebanon is called, now more than ever, to be an example,” he told political and religious leaders on the second day of a visit that coincided with violent protests across the Muslim world against a U.S.-made film insulting Islam.
Lebanon - torn apart by a 1975-1990 sectarian civil war - is a religious mosaic of over four million people whose Muslim majority includes Sunnis, Shi’ites and Alawites. Christians, over one-third of the population, are divided into more than a dozen churches, six of them linked to the Vatican.
The German-born pontiff, 85, delivered his morning speech in French at the presidential palace after meeting President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite.
At a rally later in the day, he told thousands of cheering young people not to let discrimination, unemployment and instability drive them abroad and reminded young Syrian Christians in the crowd that “the pope has not forgotten you.”
Addressing young Muslims also there, he said “together with young Christians, you are the future of this fine country and of the Middle East in general. Seek to built it up together!”
Peace between warring factions and among the many religious groups in the Middle East has been a central theme of Benedict’s visit, along with his call to Christians not to leave the region despite war and growing pressure from radical Islamists.
Amira Chabchoul, a Muslim onlooker outside the palace said: “We came to support the pope and also get support from him, because our experience has been that when we listen to him, we are touched and we are helped in our lives.”
On Friday, protesters against the anti-Islam film dodged gunfire and tear gas to hurl stones at security forces in Lebanon’s Tripoli where one demonstrator was killed. Protesters chanted “We don’t want the pope” and “No more insults”
A Vatican spokesman said the pope was being kept informed of protests against the film, circulated on the Internet under several titles including “Innocence of Muslims”.
Benedict began his visit on Friday with a call for an end to all arms supplies to Syria, where the tiny Christian minority fears reprisals if Islamists come to power at the end of the bloody insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
He also described the Arab Spring movement as a “cry for freedom” that was a positive development as long as it ensured tolerance for all religions.
Coptic Christians, about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have come under repeated attack by Islamists since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak. They worry the new government will strengthen Islamic law in the new constitution.
In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, hardline Salafis have brought a new religious intolerance against fellow Muslims such as Sufis, whose shrines they are destroying as heretical.
“If we want peace, let us defend life,” Benedict said. “This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life.”
The pope held a private meeting with leaders of the Sunni, Shi’ite and Alawite Muslim communities and of the Druze, an offshoot of Shi’ism with other influences.
Chief Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the supreme Sunni leader, praised him for visiting “in these fateful circumstances that Lebanon and the region are living through” and stressed the common goals of both faiths “in the whole Arab world”.
“The flight of Christians hurts us Muslims because it means we cannot live with others,” he said. Emigration, wars and a low birth rate have cut Christian ranks to 5 percent of the Middle Eastern population compared with 20 percent a century ago.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai told the pope that young Christians in the Middle East were suffering political and social crises that tested their faith.
“Their concerns grow in the face of ... rising religious fundamentalism that believes neither in the right to be different nor in the freedom of conscience or religion, and that resorts to violence as the only way to reach its goals,” he said.
At a youth rally outside the Maronite Patriarchate on a mountaintop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Benedict said Middle Eastern Christians had the honor of living in the region where Jesus was born and Christianity began.
Benedict urged the region’s young Christians not to “taste the sweet bitterness of emigration”.
About 250 Chaldean and Syriac Christians from Iraq waved Iraqi and Kurdish flags as the pope arrived with Rai in his gleaming white popemobile. A giant rosary made of balloons floated above the waiting crowd.
“We flew here three days ago to see him,” said Nuhaya Bassam, 33, from Baghdad. “It’s definitely worth the hassle, to us, he’s God’s representative on Earth.”
“If anyone needs him right now, it’s the Christians of the Middle east,” said an Irbil man named Hani, 24.
A Syrian student priest, Khudr Samaan, said he was thrilled to see the pope and he wanted to tell fellow Syrians not to be afraid.
“My family couldn’t make it here because of the difficult conditions,” he said. “I don’t think I could make it back to them if I tried, either, so I’m stuck here a while.”
Writing by Tom Heneghan; Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Robin Pomeroy