BEIRUT (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI will visit Lebanon Sept. 14-16, Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai announced during Easter Mass at the patriarchal seat in Bkerke, Lebanon.
Patriarch Rai said April 8 that the pope will meet with the country’s religious and civil officials, including President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite Catholic. During an open-air Mass in Beirut Sept. 16, the pope will present the apostolic exhortation on the October 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which met under the theme: “Communion and Witness.”
In a statement, Sleiman said the pope’s visit would affirm the depth of the “historical relations that tie Lebanon with the (Vatican) and will form an occasion to focus on Lebanon’s position, message and role as a witness of freedom and coexistence.”
It marks the pope’s second visit to the Middle East; in May 2009 he visited Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The announcement comes amid increased concern over the plight of Christians across the Middle East, emigrating in increasing numbers.
Of Lebanon’s population of nearly 4 million, approximately 33 percent are Christian, considered a high estimate. Half a century ago, Christians represented about half the population.
In Iraq, a Christian exodus since the American-led invasion in 2003 has reduced the Iraqi Christian population by two-thirds.
In an interview with Vatican Radio broadcast April 9, Archbisop Paul Sayah, vicar general of the Maronite Patriarchate, said the pope’s visit would “inject a new dynamism,” not only in the Lebanese society and Christians, but in the whole region.
Noting that the Christian presence in Lebanon has a “significant impact” on the country, Archbishop Sayah said the visit would “incite the Lebanese once again to play the role they are expected to play in this part of the world.”
The archbishop said the apostolic exhortation would offer “a special message not only to Lebanon but also, and especially, to the countries of the region” where the outcome of the “so-called ‘Arab Spring’” is still “not yet clear.”
The pope’s message, he said, will be especially important for the “tragic situation” in Syria, “which I am sure the Holy Father will address in one way or another.”
The Arab world “badly needs a word of encouragement, a word of hope,” he said, emphasizing that Christians in the region need directives on how to approach the “new reality” of the difficulties they face amid a revolution in their homeland.