Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - John Paul II's legacy to Lebanon

It is not a stretch to link papal visits to the Middle East with the upsurge of passion calling for democratic reform. It is no accident that following the Iraqi elections - or whatever you want to call the exihibition of purple fingers - the next big event, two weeks later, was an outpouring of popular passion in Lebanon.

The historic visit to Lebanon by Pope John Paul II in May 1997 was welcomed with near-unanimous support from political and religious leaders in this country. State officials at the time stressed the "pastoral" character of the visit, whereas Christian opposition figures expressed hope it would help restore political balance through genuine national reconciliation and improve human rights.

In reference to all foreign troops on Lebanese soil at the time, the pope urged the international community "to help the Lebanese people live peacefully within a national territory recognized and respected by all."

Eight years later, the pope's words on that day seemed to find a practical expression in the nationwide uprising for Lebanese independence and sovereignty which saw people from all sects take to the streets and with one voice demand change.

The Pope was in the Middle East more than once. In retrospect it seems that his gentle but powerful input there was not a wasted effort.

In 2001, the pope made another historic visit to Damascus where he was again received with unanimous support from all religious leaders. Tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians attended the Mass celebrated by the pope in Damascus soccer stadium.

The pope told the stadium crowd, speaking in French, "In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together with confidence and boldness and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding."

Following in the steps of St. Paul, the pope's visit to Syria took him to a landscape rich in Christian history. Syria's 17 million people include two million Christians, and the pope's presence there highlighted the rich mix of cultures and history of Syria.

Pope John Paul traveled in what he called the Millennium Journey as a pilgrim to the Umayyad Mosque. He was the first pope to enter a mosque, stepping into a historic shrine alongside Muslim leaders.

By visiting Umayyad Mosque, in the heart of the Old City of Damascus, the pope made a point on how Christianity and the preceding Roman Empire, were deeply rooted in the Middle East.

The Umayyad Mosque has been a place of worship for more than 3,000 years. Following the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the temple was converted to a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, whose head is believed by Christians to be buried under a shrine inside the mosque. The church became a mosque in the 8th century, less than 100 years after Muslim armies seized Syria from Byzantine rule. To the pope it seemed it was simply a place for humanity to commune with God. A holy place, regardless of the religion. It was another mark of his deep respect for all individuals and all faith.

Back in Beirut, the images of his 1997 visit which have been reshown on television following his death are a reminder that Beirut had not witnessed million-people marches since that time until the current crisis this year.

These snips are from The Daily Star.
The whole piece is worth reading.
Tip to Dove's Eye View, who got it from a reader.

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