By Benjamin Mann and Alan Holdren
Rumors of a papal trip to Lebanon have been confirmed by the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which will welcome Pope Benedict XVI at the start of his Sept. 14-16 visit.
“We came to him and now he’s coming to us,” said Patriarch Gregorios III, a major participant in the 2010 synod of bishops that brought many Arab Church leaders to the Vatican. He confirmed recent talk of a papal visit during a March 15 press conference at the Melkite Catholics’ headquarters in Rome.
The Pope “will come to support Christians so that they are united,” the patriarch said, according to Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.
The Melkite Catholic leader will give a discourse in the Pope’s presence on the afternoon of Sept. 14, at the Church of St. Paul at Harissa.
Patriarch Gregorios, who is based in the Syrian capital Damascus, said the Pope would be making the visit “for all of the Middle East.” Pope Benedict may even stop over in Syria “if the situation improves,” according to the Eastern Catholic patriarch.
Along with a “message of peace” for all people of the region, the Pope will deliver a document – known as the post-synodal apostolic exhortation – dealing more specifically with themes of the 2010 Synod for the Middle East.
That gathering gave top priority to the preservation of Middle Eastern Catholics and other Christians in their historic homelands. It took place only months before the Arab world erupted in a series of ongoing and often violent revolutions.
Concern over some Middle Eastern churches’ survival has grown in the meantime, following the rise of political Islam in Egypt and the prospect of a civil war in Syria.
Lebanon, by contrast, is considered a model of stability and religious coexistence in the Middle East. The country’s power-sharing system divides different offices of leadership between Muslim groups and Maronite Catholics, who are led by Patriarch Bechara Rai and make up 21 percent of the population.
The Pope was invited to Lebanon by its Sunni Muslim prime minister Najib Mikati, during his November 2011 visit to the Vatican.