Pope Benedict arrives in Lebanon on Friday to bring a message of peace to a region torn by civil war in neighboring Syria and strained by violent Islamist protests against the United States in Libya and Egypt.
While those tensions overshadowed preparations for the religiously sensitive visit, security was low-key in Beirut and the only protests - against a film denigrating the Muslim Prophet Mohammad - were due to take place far from the capital.
Even the militant Shi'ite movement Hezbollah
has hung banners along the airport highway greeting Benedict with a
picture of him and texts in Arabic and French saying: "Hezbollah
welcomes the pope in the homeland of coexistence".
Nearby, the movement - which Israel and the United States
consider a terrorist group - put up Arabic-only banners for local
consumption with a different message: "Welcome to you in the homeland of
In Christian districts of the capital, pictures of the
85-year-old pope were plastered in every street and church bells rang
out on Friday morning.
"The pope is with us," was the headline in Al-Nahar
newspaper, which said more than 5,000 military and security personnel
were being deployed to protect the pontiff. Beirut airport was due to close to all air traffic for two hours shortly before his arrival at 1.45 pm (0645 EDT).
Beirut-based Samir Khalil Samir, a leading Catholic
expert on Islam, did not expect major security problems despite
anti-U.S. protests in Libya, Egypt and Yemen because he said all
Lebanese communities saw the trip as a gesture of peace.
"He will bring a spiritual message - one with political consequences, of course, but spiritual," he told Reuters.
Benedict, on his fourth trip to the Middle East as
pope, will stress unity among the different Christian churches in the
region and peace between Christians and Muslims during the visit, which
will be restricted to Beirut and its surroundings and end on Sunday.
He will also urge Christians not to leave the Middle
East, the birthplace of the faith that they have been steadily
abandoning in recent decades to escape wars, political unrest and
discrimination by the region's majority Muslims.
On Friday, Benedict will issue a document along these
lines known as an "apostolic exhortation", based on discussions among
Catholic bishops at a Rome synod on the Middle East in 2010.
He will also hold two major open-air events and meet
leaders of all Lebanon's many Christian and Islamic communities, as well
as the country's political leaders.
Christians now make up about five percent of the Middle
Eastern population, down from 20 percent a century ago. If current
pressures and their low birth rates continue, some estimates say their
12 million total could be halved by 2020.
The pope's message of peace will especially be aimed
toward Syria, whose border is only 50 km (30 miles) away and where an
opposition group says more than 27,000 people have been killed in an
uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Clashes have occasionally spilled over into Lebanese
territory, evoking fears of further fighting in a country still
recovering from the sectarian civil war that raged from 1975 until 1990.
Tensions have been rising between Lebanon's Sunni
Muslims, who generally back the uprising led by Syria's Sunni majority,
and Shi'ites who usually support Assad's minority Alawite sect, an
offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
About two-thirds of Lebanon's Christians are in full
communion with the Vatican, either as members of the five local churches
linked to Rome - the Maronites, the largest group, and the Greek
Melkite, Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean Catholics - or of the worldwide
Roman Catholic Church itself.
There are also five Orthodox churches - the Greek,
Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian and Coptic Orthodox - and small groups of
Protestants, mostly Presbyterians and Anglicans.