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An unusual exercise in optimism

Fears over the Pope's visit to Lebanon have proven unfounded

An unusual exercise in optimism
Alessandro Speciale, Beirut

September 17, 2012

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Journalists are not famous for their optimism. In fact, a dash of cynicism, a world-weary, jaded attitude – even towards events that everyone (or almost) feels excited about – is almost compulsory for newsmen. But for once I want to go against the trend. After three days in Lebanon, covering Pope Benedict’s visit here, I feel – yes, I admit it – quite optimistic. Let me explain. The trip itself didn’t start under good auspices. Small Lebanon is squeezed between Syria, which kept a watchful eye on the country even after withdrawing its troops after the first “Arab Spring” in 2005, and Israel, which occupied its southern region for more than 20 years. The “fragile equilibrium” (to use the Pope’s words) between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians of all rites and other smaller communities that has ruled it since the end of a bloody civil war is now put under further strain by the civil war raging just across the border. Then, there have been the protests all over the Arab world against an inflammatory film that disparages the Prophet Muhammad. Demonstrators have converged on several American embassies in the region. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other diplomatic staff, were killed when militiamen stormed the consulate in Benghazi just two days before the Pope’s plane was due to take off for Beirut. Moreover, Muslims have viewed Pope Benedict with skepticism ever since the furor over a lecture he gave in Regensburg in 2006. In short, his visit to the Middle East couldn’t have come at a more delicate moment. But in fact, it turned out that much of the fears over the trip were overblown. Perhaps made wiser from previous mishaps, papal advisers made sure that Benedict’s speeches didn’t contain any potentially ambiguous wording. The pontiff delivered a clear message of peace, dialogue and reconciliation, stressing the key role that religious people can play in building a more human, more plural and more welcoming society. Most importantly, all the shadows hanging over the visit were instantly dispelled by the warm welcome Benedict received here from Christians and Muslims alike. People of all religions flocked to see him along the roads and at a colorful, joyous youth meeting on Saturday afternoon at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkirke’, on a hill with a stunning vista over the sunset on the Mediterranean Sea. This, per se, is no source of optimism. People usually cheer the Pope when he goes abroad – without even caring for the actual message he carries, mesmerized as they are by the presence of such a unique figure on the world stage – but few expect that the Middle East’s, or even just Lebanon’s, problems will be solved by his visit. Yet, some things during his visit to Lebanon seem part – at least to my naively optimistic look – of a more general trend. Let me line up some recent events. First, the aftermath of the arrest of Rimsha Masih, a young Pakistani girl, on suspicion of burning pages from the Holy Qu'ran. In fact, it was quickly revealed that the accusations against her had been fabricated to create sectarian unrest and ultimately to scare Christians off their properties in outer Islamabad, taking advantage of the notoriously vague terms of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The episode has sparked an unprecedented reaction by the country’s Islamic leaders and might mark a “turning point” in the debate on the law, which in recent years has been used as a tool against religious minorities. In response to the violence in Benghazi, religious and political authorities have reacted swiftly against the attacks on a country that only a few months ago had been hailed as a savior for putting its military might behind the rebels who attempted – and finally succeeded – in thwarting dictator Moammar Gadahfi. After the attack on the consulate, people took to the streets with signs that read, “Sorry America, this is not the behavior of our Islam and Prophet.” Finally, Pope Benedict’s trip itself. While violent groups in Tripoli, 70 kms north of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, attacked American “symbols” such as KFC, the pope’s visit rolled on smoothly – surrounded by tight security measures, yes, but not tighter than in other trips in much friendlier countries. People here stressed time and again that those cheering the Pope were by no means just Catholics or Christians; many of them, in fact, were Muslims. The country’s Grand Mufti, the highest Sunni authority in the country, was at pains to explain that what was initially perceived as a snub – he didn’t go to the airport on Friday to welcome the Pope – was in fact a consequence of his desire to play his part in trying to defuse tensions. He chose to deliver his Friday sermon in person to tackle the issue of the notorious Innocence of Muslims film and guide reactions to it. Moreover, he told Pope Benedict during their meeting on Saturday that Muslims “absolutely do not want Christians to leave the Middle East.” The plight of Middle East Christians has become a major concern for the Vatican in recent years. Their presence in the birthland of Christianity has become more and more precarious, with droves leaving a region perceived as more and more inhospitable. The “Arab Spring” revolutions, with the subsequent rise to power of Islamist parties from Morocco to Egypt, have all but increased their concerns. Just to quote an example, on Saturday I spoke with an Iraqi Christian, and he openly told me that his country’s late dictator, Saddam Hussein, was “bad, but at least he didn’t kill Christians.” He fears that in neighboring Syria things will get very hard for Christians as “radical movements” play a larger role in the bloody fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But the Pope had a different message for him and his fellow Christians: “Do not be afraid!” In fact, he came here to embolden and reassure them, to convince them that it’s worth the effort to try building their future in their land. And Muslims in the Middle East seem to be on the same page, convinced that the Christian presence here in the Middle East – as a Jordanian prince put it during Benedict’s visit there in 2009 – is as indispensable for the region’s future as it was for its glorious past. So here’s my optimistic thought: After years, too many of them, when the tide of sectarian tensions and divisions, fueled by more and more ludicrous pretexts, seemed to be unstoppable, people are starting to realize that this trend is harmful for everyone, not just for the targeted minorities who are often at the sharp end of mob violence and hate speeches. But also for the majority, those large groups of people who do not share the extremists' views but in the end acquiesce to their excesses because, after all, they are ‘on our side’ and why should we stand up for ‘those other people’? Political leaders, too, might be finally realizing that playing up sectarian fears and taking up the extremists’ views might give them a political gain in the short run – but in the end just breaks up the society they are supposed to rule. In short, it seems that this appeal from Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,” the document he expressly came here to deliver, might fall at just the right moment. “I appeal urgently to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions.” Now, here’s hoping that reality isn’t too hasty in proving that I should’ve stuck to my guns and stayed a pessimist rather than indulging in some unjournalistic, hopelessly naïve optimism. Alessandro Speciale writes for and other news sources on Vatican affairs
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