By David Kerr
The Vatican says that Pope Benedict’s apostolic visit to Lebanon Sept. 14-16 was never second-guessed, despite the civil war in neighboring Syria causing instability in the Middle East.
“The completion of this trip has never been in question and it is a sign of willingness to go to this area as a sign of encouragement, support, and hope for peace in this context,” said Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ at a press conference September 11.
The Pope is making the 3-day trip to the Mediterranean state to sign his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in the Middle East.
The document will be the Pope’s response to the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops of the Middle East held at the Vatican in October 2010. The topic for discussion then was “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.”
Like all countries surrounding Syria, Lebanon has also been affected by the civil war that has engulfed the Syrian people since armed revolt against President Bashar al-Assad got underway in March 2011.
The United Nations refugee agency estimates that nearly 250,000 Syrians have now fled to neighboring countries including Lebanon.
Fr. Lombardi said Pope Benedict would use the visit to promote “a positive messenge of peace” in the region and to show solidarity with Middle Eastern Christians who “are the witnesses to the faith” in the region “despite all the problems.” However it is unlikely that the Pope will meet any Syrian refugees.
Despite fears in some quarters for the Pope’s safety, Fr. Lombardi was confident that security matters would not create any undue cause for concern during the visit.
“In Lebanon everyone sees the Pope as welcome and there is no form of hostility,” he said, “we must remember that the Pope is not being presented as a political leader but a religious one.”
Pope Benedict will arrive in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Friday, Sept. 14. His first official port of call will be the Basilica of St. Paul in coastal town of Harissa, 12 miles to the north of Beirut. It is there, in the presence of the episcopate of the Middle East, that Pope Benedict will sign his Apostolic Exhortation.