It seemed like a scene straight from the playbook for Arab Spring demonstrations: chador-clad women carrying placards, school children in neatly pressed uniforms with badges of Ayatollah Khomeini waving flags, muftis making speeches. But this was Lebanon, and the Shi’ites of south Beirut were welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon.
One woman in a black headscarf made the trip from Baalbek to Beirut in a bus organised by Hezbollah. "This is a historic visit, I feel the pope will help bring peace to Lebanon," she told the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram. "I want to thank the pope, but I also want to thank [Hezbollah Secretary-General] Hassan Nasrallah, for helping bring peace to Lebanon. The secret to peace is co-existence."
A well-known advocate for co-existence, Muhammad Sammak, political adviser to the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, insisted that “any harm done to a Christian is a wrong done to all Muslims, and every attack on a church is an attack against all mosques: a message that can be found in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.”
If the German Pope, now aged 85, received a rapturous reception in Lebanon, he must be doing something right – and he could not have come at a worse moment. Next-door Syria is dissolving into the chaos of civil war. There are riots through the Muslim world over a YouTube video ridiculing Islam.
It is also the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut. In 1982 a renegade Christian militia slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian and Shi’ites in a refugee camp in south Beirut with Israeli protection. It was just one of the swarm of bitter memories which could have sunk the trip.
Instead, even Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Nasrallah, welcomed the visit as an "extraordinary and historic" event. According to the Beirut newspaper, The Daily Star, even some Salafists, the harshest and most uncompromising of Muslim sects, welcomed him. About 300,000 people attended the Pope’s open-air Mass.
This enthusiasm is even more puzzling in the light of the riots which erupted to protest against the Pope himself back in 2006 over his Regensburg address. At the time the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim body, declared that the Pope’s remarks were a "character assassination of the Prophet Mohammed" and a "smear campaign".
All forgotten, it seems.
So what did the Pope have to say in Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where Christians and Muslims live in relative harmony?
The kernel of his message was contained in an ambitious speech in the presidential palace to politicians and religious leaders. His ideas challenged not only the fragile society of Lebanon, but also – perhaps even more so – the wealthier and more peaceful societies of the West. Here are the main points.
(1) With its kaleidoscopic array of political parties, Muslim sects, and Christian denominations, Lebanon must be one of the most diverse societies on earth. But, said the Pope, unity is not the same as uniformity. Social cohesion is possible – but only if there is “unstinting respect for the dignity of each person”. Human dignity cannot be taken for granted. It requires “openness to transcendence” – a assumption which is often denied in the West.
(2) Religious freedom is the basis of all other freedoms. “The freedom to profess and practise one’s religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone. The loss or attenuation of this freedom deprives the person of his or her sacred right to a spiritually integrated life. What nowadays passes for tolerance does not eliminate cases of discrimination, and at times it even reinforces them.”
This is a not-so-subtle rebuke to countries like the UK and the US where spirituality is often regarded as simply a personal option, like a taste for pistachio ice cream. But Benedict argues that a person who lacks a spiritual dimension will be unable to grasp his or her own dignity, still less the dignity of others.
(3) A commitment to peace is a commitment to life. This must have rung bells in Lebanon, as an estimated 120,000 people perished in its senseless civil war between 1975 and 1990. But the Pope’s words equally apply to Western countries where the unborn and disabled perish legally.
“The effectiveness of our commitment to peace depends on our understanding of human life. If we want peace, let us defend life! This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life, on men and women as creatures willed by God.”
Religion, or openness to transcendence, equip us with night-vision goggles which to see human beings with inalienable rights who once looked like burdens or obstacles. “The grandeur and the raison d’être of each person are found in God alone,” he said.
(4) Somewhat surprisingly, the Pope stressed that stable families are essential for political peace.
“The destruction of a single human life is a loss for humanity as a whole. Mankind is one great family for which all of us are responsible. By questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family, some ideologies undermine the foundations of society.”
But this makes sense. It is in the family that we learn that other human beings are precious and deserving of respect.
In Lebanon, as the Pope pointed out, “It is not uncommon to see the two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?”
Was he also signalling that the shift from marriage to co-habitation and the campaign for same-sex marriage are undermining the West’s capacity for peace? Quite possibly.
(5) In another pointed challenge to the West, issued during an in-flight press conference, Benedict also condemned the global arms trade.
“I also believe that there must be an end to the importation of arms: without which, war could not continue. Instead of importing weapons, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas of peace and creativity, we should find ways of accepting each person in his otherness, we should therefore make visible before the world the respect that religions have for one another, respect for man as God’s creation and love of neighbour as fundamental to all religions.”
A grave sin? Whom was he talking about? He pointed no fingers, but the United States is the world’s biggest arms trafficker by a country mile. A big financial stake in war must surely make peace less likely.
According to an authoritative annual report from the Congressional Research Service released last month, “In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over US$56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share.”
What is agreed is not always delivered, but the US also delivered far more. “In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.”
Of all Western leaders, only Benedict XVI has managed to find common ground with Muslims without sacrificing his own principles. US President Barack Obama attempted to forge a cultural rapprochement between American democracy and Islam in his speech at Cairo University in 2009. But the philosophical and religious depth of the Pope’s remarks was missing. Perhaps Muslims feel that the President believes in the United States while the Pope believes in God. It’s not difficult to see why they see a common ground based on awe of the transcendent more congenial than one based on Obama’s version of Enlightenment values.
Lebanon’s experience of harmony and respect among Muslims and Christians is fragile but real. If the West is seeking to forge its own consensus, perhaps it should begin here, the only country in the world where Islam and Christianity have flourished together.
This article is published by Michael Cook
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