By CHRISTINA WHITE
POPE JOHN PAUL II arrives in Lebanon tomorrow for the start of an historic visit which will focus on national reconciliation. It will be the Pontiff's first trip to the Middle East.
Speaking from the Vatican this week the Pope emphasised that the visit had a "deeply religious and human purpose". He compared it to Christ's presence in Lebanon 2000 years ago.
The Pontiff is due to celebrate Mass for 200,000 people at an open-air site in Beirut on Sunday morning. A Muslim contingent of 2,500 have also been invited to attend. He will spend only 31 hours in the country but will present a potentially controversial document, a post-synodal apostolic exhor
tation, which is expected to cover both Christian-Muslim dialogue and political issues.
Papal concern for the Lebanon has always been strong because of the intensely religious nature of the division and hatred which has scarred the country for over two decades.
In the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had been expelled from Jordan, established itself in the Lebanon. The presence of an armed political faction upset the delicate balance which had existed since independence between the Christian, Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim communities.
Civil war broke out in 1976 between the right-wing Christian militias and various alignments of Muslim and Palestinian forces. Beirut was divided across the Green Line, with the Christian sector to the east and the Muslim sector to the west.
A fragile peace accord was established in the 1990s but political in-fighting remains. 35,000 Syrian troops have been deployed in Lebanon since the 70s, supporting the Syrian backed government, and the Israeli's continue to hold a socalled security buffer zone to the south of the country.
A planned Papal visit to Lebanon was cancelled in 1994 because of security fears. Organisers of this weekend's visit say that security will not be a problem: "It's completely quiet and nothing is feared," said Bishop Bechara Rai ofJbeil. "Christians and Muslims, everyone's preparing to receive the Pope."
But political tensions remain. Christian opposition leader Dory Chamoun, has opposed the visit because he fears it could be used as propaganda to legitimise the Syrian presence in the country. Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, doubted the Pope could effect change but he felt the visit would help dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities.
Last weekend, at a meeting with the new Iranian ambassador to the Holy See, the Pope spoke of the co-operation that exists between Iranian Muslims and Christians. The common point of reference in the "faith of Abraham" can promote that same co-operation in other nations, he said. For centuries Muslim and Christian have lived side by side. The message to Lebanon is the same.
Pontiff's mission Page 7