CAIRO – A planned visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon is meeting a widespread welcome from Muslim leaders across the Arab country, amid high hopes of strengthening religious co-existence among followers of the two Abrahimic faiths.
“We welcome the visit of the pope as an occasion to affirm the points of convergence between Muslims and Christians,” Sayyed Ali Fadlallah, son of late Shiite scholar Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, told The Daily Star on Tuesday, September 11.
Pope Benedict is scheduled to arrive in Lebanon on Friday on a three-day visit.
Talks will cover a host of issues, including the status of Christians in light of the rise of Islamist groups in the Arab world.
Pope Benedict will meet with Muslim leaders in Lebanon on Saturday.
He will also sign the apostolic exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which met in 2010 to discuss the situation of Christians in the Levant.
Fadllalah said the pontiff’s visit will help Muslims and Christians to unite against challenges, particularly Israel’s attempts to judaize Islamic and Christian holy sites in Al-Quds (occupied East Jerusalem.”
“On the Lebanese level, the visit boosts national unity which we badly need.”
Shiite scholar Sayyed Mohammad Hasan al-Amin described the pope’s trip as a “blessed visit,” linking it to late Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lebanon in 1997.
“It is a sign that Lebanon has a great place in the Vatican,” Amin said.
He said the pope’s visit will have a major positive impact on religious co-existence in Lebanon.
“The Christians are a major part of the Lebanese structure, and the pope’s visit emphasizes coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the country.”
Salafi Muslim scholar Ahmed Assir also praised the pope’s planned visit to the tiny Arab country.
“Of course I consider it a very normal visit ... he is welcome in Lebanon, which is a country with various sects,” Assir said.
“The pope is the head of the church ... Christians are our major partners, and it is their right that he visits them.”
The rise of Islamists in the Arab world is expected to dominate the Pope’s talks in Lebanon.
“We will work to eliminate the concerns that have arisen from the changes in the Arab world,” Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Rashid Qabbani told The Daily Star.
He argued that Muslims also have concerns about the rapid changes in the Arab world.
“The current situation in the Arab world is still unstable. Until we get a clearer idea of what the future will hold, we will also have concerns.”
Worries have grown among Christians in the Middle East over the Arab Spring, which swept several Arab leaders from powers.
Qabbani voiced hope that the pope’s visit will help reassure Christians in the region and enhance religious cooperation.
“The regimes in the Arab world are changing, and we all want to have security and equality and justice. I hope the pope’s visit will reflect that.”
Salafi Muslim imam Sheikh Salem Rafei, deputy head of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, echoes a similar view.
“The Christians are a major component of the Lebanese fabric, and it is their right to be enthusiastic about their pope’s visit.”
He assured Christians that their rights will be protected under Islamist rule.
“I think this development is positive for Christians, especially because Islamist parties respect all religions.”
Lebanon’s Jaafarite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan also hoped that the pope’s visit will help revive co-existence among the different Lebanese sects.
“Lebanon has always been the cradle of religious civilization where the two holy books, the Qur’an and the Bible, agree on the important value of humans,” he said.
“That is why the pope’s visit should enhance such partnership between Muslims and Christians.”
Pope Benedict angered Muslims worldwide in 2006 after quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor that everything Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) brought was evil and inhuman.
His lecture triggered criticisms from Muslim countries, scholars and intellectuals and strained ties between the Vatican and the Muslim world.
The pontiff has repeatedly said the words did not reflect his personal views but stopped short of a clear apology to Muslims.He also drew the ire of religious leaders after issuing a document titled “Dominus Jesus,” which clearly stated that Christianity was the only true path to salvation.