BBC News

Pope visits Lebanon torn by Syria crisis

image captionBanners welcoming the Pope are lining the main road to Beirut's airport

Pope Benedict XVI, who is going on a three-day visit to Lebanon, will find much has changed in the region since the last papal visit there, by John Paul II in 1997, writes the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

The political landscape in Lebanon itself was heavily rearranged - but not radically transformed - after the assassination in 2005 of the man who was prime minister during John Paul II's visit, Rafik Hariri.

His death led to popular demonstrations that, combined with international pressure, induced the Syrians to end a military presence that dated back to 1976.

A year after Hariri's death, Lebanon was shaken by the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, which left the radical Shia movement stronger than ever.

Hezbollah is now the power behind a one-sided government that tilts towards a Syrian regime now battling for survival against a rebellion that refuses to be subdued.

Syria remains the defining issue in Lebanese politics - and Pope Benedict will find his followers deeply divided in that respect.

While the bulk of the Shias, led by Hezbollah, support the Syrian regime, and most Sunnis are against it and back the Sunni-majority rebels, Lebanon's Christians are sharply split between the two camps.

Buffer zone

However, Christian leaders play down their differences - and some even see them as a source of strength.

"The Christian parties do not see eye to eye concerning Syria, but this does not mean the Pope will come and see Christians fighting each other for Syria," said Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a fiercely anti-Syrian faction with its roots in a powerful civil-war Christian militia.

"The Pope will see a flourishing community again, contrary to what many in the West think, but with different parties and different political agendas, this is all."

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Foundation's Middle East Center in Beirut, believes that, with different factions allied to pro- and anti-Syrian forces, the Christians have inadvertently avoided being targeted as tensions rise.

"In effect in this period it has secured a level of security for them because they are not identified by any other community as 'the enemy'," he says.

"Enough of them are allied with one side or the other to neutralise the communal identity as a political identity, and that's a big reason why they are fairly safe and secure in today's Lebanon."

image captionThe Pope's visit is intended to encourage Lebanon's Christian community

He even suggested that, as rivalry between the Shia and Sunni groups deepens, the Christians may be unwittingly creating a kind of political buffer zone by their traditional occupancy of such key posts as president of the republic and commander of the Lebanese army.

"Geography also places the Christians right in the middle between an increasingly armed Sunni north and a Hezbollah-dominated Beirut, and hence the tensions emerging and escalating between Shias and Sunnis during the Syrian crisis have not spilled over into open Sunni-Shia clashes because they are not contiguous," Mr Salem said.

As the Syrian crisis deepens, many have expressed fears that conflict will spill over the border into Lebanon, spreading along the same sectarian fault-lines that devastated the country during its own civil war from 1975 until 1990, leaving scars and divisions that persist.

But Samir Geagea believes that if Syria goes to pieces, it will have the opposite effect on Lebanon.

"Even, let us suppose, if Syria went to fragmentation, I don't see a spillover effect to Lebanon, rather on the contrary, because when they will see the fragmentation of Syria and its effects and its aftermath, everybody would cling more and more to the unity of Lebanon. No, I'm not worried."

If the Lebanese Christians are generally doing all right, other communities have come out of the Arab Spring badly battered by the upheavals.

Deadly crossfire

The Pope is meeting Church leaders from around the region during his Lebanon visit.

image captionMuch has changed since the 1997 visit by Pope John Paul II to Lebanon

He will hear for himself how Iraqi Christian communities, which had survived and often flourished since biblical times, were devastated as Islamist sentiment in both Shia and Sunni communities intensified after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Targeted attacks on churches in Baghdad and elsewhere by Sunni militants in 2010 sped up an exodus of Christians that was already gathering pace, spurred by random violence, social pressures and economic collapse.

While not specifically targeted, Syrian Christians have been caught in the deadly crossfire between the regime and rebels, especially in cities like Homs where largely-Christian quarters became battlegrounds, prompting virtually all the Christians to flee from there.

In Egypt, the large Coptic minority is warily eyeing the new Islamist-dominated government, after a number of post-revolution incidents raised their fears.

The furious regional reaction to the film "Innocence of Muslims" will have done nothing to ease the anxieties felt by many Christians over the rise of Islamist parties and sentiment that has accompanied all of the regime changes.

Against this turbulent background, Pope Benedict - who himself stirred hostility in some Muslim circles in 2006 by quoting a 14th-Century diatribe against the Prophet Muhammad - will be stressing the need for mutual tolerance and coexistence, and trying to encourage his followers to reach out to other communities, stand their ground, and throw themselves into the task of helping construct a new Middle East.

More on this story

  • Lebanese dismissive of Sunni militia call

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.