One of the first things Pope Benedict XVI saw when he left Beirut airport after arriving on Friday were Shiite women in black chadors and hundreds of Hezbollah scouts who had come to greet him.
Rafiq Hariri International Airport lies on the Mediterranean in the heart of the Lebanese capital’s mostly Shiite southern suburbs, where support for the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah is widespread.
Awaiting Benedict on the road out of the airport were boys and girls, all members of the Mahdi scouts, named after the 12th imam of Shiite Islam who mysteriously disappeared centuries ago and whose return is eagerly awaited.
They wore crisply pressed blue or kahki shirts, depending on their ages, adorned by a badge bearing the picture of the founder of the Iranian revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Many of the children were carrying the Lebanese flag, while some also waved the flag of the Vatican.
Under a hot late summer sun, the elder children waited patiently, while the younger ones played as they enjoyed a day off school.
“The pope is here! The pope is here!” shouted one 10-year-old boy, as he leaned over a fence on the airport road, gripping his Lebanese flag.
“I’m so happy he’s coming,” said Fatima, a 12-year-old girl scout, wearing a blue Islamic headscarf. “He has made us all happy, and we just want to celebrate.”
Yellow and white flags and balloons rose over the airport as the pope’s convoy passed.
Ironically, Hezbollah’s signature colour, and that of the scouts’ scarves, is yellow, while those of the Vatican are yellow and white.
Asked whether she minded that the pope is a Christian religious figure rather than a Muslim, Fatima replied: “I just think it’s good we all get to be happy for a day.”
Also filled with anticipation was 14-year-old Hassan, who said that “in Lebanon we are all fingers of one hand.”
With the sectarian divisions that drove the devastating 1975-1990 civil war seeming to be a thing of the past for the children, Hassan said: “I have Sunni Muslim friends, not just Shiites.”
The Mahdi scouts were the only ones in Lebanon to have organised a welcome for the pope.
“We’ve never welcomed an international figure of this stature. It’s a challenge. The children are very excited, and it’s difficult to organise them,” he told AFP.
The Mahdi scouts’ marching band played drums and trumpets to welcome the pope’s motorcade. Although the elder children have some idea of the significance of the visit, many of the younger ones do not.
“I don’t know where the pope is coming from, but I am happy to be here,” said nine-year-old girl scout Zahraa. “It’s more fun than being at school.”
Nearby was the group of Shiite women, dressed in black from top to toe, who had also come to welcome the pontiff.
One of them, Juliette Nayef from the eastern city of Baalbek, travelled to Beirut by bus, her trip paid by Hezbollah.
“This is a historic visit. I feel the pope will help bring peace to Lebanon,” she said. “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 coexistence.”
Just as excited was schoolteacher Iman Faris, who lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut, battered by aerial bombardment in 2006 during a war between Israel and Hezbollah.
“Those who say there are differences between Muslims and Christians just want to ruin our country,” said Faris. “After all, the first woman to wear a headscarf was Mary,” the mother of Jesus.