VATICAN CITY - Three years ago, on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's departure for the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, it was the murder of Luigi Padovese, the vicar apostolic of Turkey, which loomed over the trip. This time it is the killing of four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi and the uprising across the region against the controversial film that mocks the prophet Muhammad.
The apostolic trip of Benedict XVI to Lebanon, from Friday until Sunday, comes at a dramatic moment for the entire Middle East. The Pope's words will have a particular weight at a time when pressure from fundamentalists threatens to engulf the region in violence and close the door to democracy.
Nearby Syria, which has always influenced the Lebanese political situation, will also cast a long shadow over the Pope's visit. In any case, the diverse social and religious groups that make up Lebanon, including the Islamist party of Hezbollah, linked to the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad, have decided to welcome Benedict XVI, establishing a sort of ceasefire for three days.
And yet, Vatican security officials acknowledge sudden new possible risks of the visit, after the murder of Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staffers, as well as other incidents caused by the Internet posting of offensive video images of the Prophet Muhammad, on the symbolic date of September 11.
According to schedule?
After the Pope's scheduled Friday afternoon arrival in Beirut, there are two important events on his agenda for Saturday: a courtesy visit with President Michel Suleiman, followed by private meetings with the president of the parliament and the prime minister at the presidential palace of Baadba. Then the Pope will meet with leaders of the Muslim communities and with members of the government and organizations, the diplomatic corps, religious leaders, and representatives from the cultural world. On Sunday, there will be a Mass at Beirut City Center Waterfront, which can hold several hundred thousand people.
In the meantime, the new villain for the Muslim population "Sam Bacile," the mysterious American director, screenwriter and producer of "The Innocence of Muslims," made the film as a challenge to Islam. He produced a full-length movie in which Muhammad is depicted as a philandering fraud and then posted a 14-minute trailer to the web. That was enough to inflame the Arab world against a new "blasphemy" from the Western World.
An avalanche that threatens revenge attacks against the papal mission to the Middle East Already, this past week, and fears of a widening of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon have caused worries about the Pope's journey. Still, the director of the Vatican's press office, Father Federico Lombardi, has let it be known that "the trip is not in question," and that the visit demonstrates the pontiff's wish and determination to travel to the region.
In the context of the announcement yesterday of the news of an assault by fundamentalist groups on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Holy See reacted promptly, firmly emphasizing two points: respect for beliefs and religious symbols of all faiths, fundamental to peaceful coexistence; and a clear condemnation of all violence.
Father Lombardi stated that a declaration of these ideas, as well as the appeal of the Pope at the general audience Wednesday for peace in the Middle East and respect for differences, has been translated into Arabic so that it can be broadcast and understood in the region.
Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, who heads the Vatican's office of inter-religious dialogue, said today that the Pope will take to Lebanon a message of coexistence and dialogue among diverse communities.
"Deep respect for the beliefs, the great figures, and the symbols of the various religions is an essential condition for the peaceful coexistence of different peoples," Father Lombardi concluded. "The grave consequences of this unwarranted offense and provocation to Muslim believers' feelings are once again evident today, both from the reactions they have aroused and from the tragic results, which themselves worsen tension and hate, triggering completely unacceptable violence."