Pope Benedict XVI hopes to advance the church’s sometimes difficult relationship with Islam and help Christians keep their place in the Muslim world during his trip to Lebanon this week.
The Vatican’s intent to build bridges was clear on Wednesday when a spokesman condemned as “unacceptable” an outburst of violence against US diplomats in Egypt and Libya but said the reasons for it were understandable.
“The serious consequences of unjustified offence and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident,” spokesman Federico Lombardi said after protests over a film deemed offensive to Islam.
“We see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in their turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence.”
“Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions is an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples,” he said, adding that the pope would bring “a message of dialogue”.
The 85-year-old pontiff, who sets off for the three-day trip on Friday, has struggled to forge a good relationship with the Muslim community since he controversially appeared to link Islam with violence in a speech in 2006.
While pope John Paul II was welcomed by Muslims on his 1997 trip to the Middle Eastern country, the Arab Spring uprisings have revolutionised the region during Benedict’s reign and tensions run higher between the two faiths.
The revolts, which have seen Islamist parties sweep to power, have left many minority Christians scared of persecution from fundamentalist outgrowths and sporadic violence against them has driven some to emigrate.
Many Christians claim that since the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 they have been seen by radical Muslims as in league with the imperialist West, and 550,000 Christians have fled from that country alone since then.
The eruption of revolutions in pockets of the Middle East has sparked Christian exoduses from affected countries for political, economic and security reasons — and there are fears the Syrian conflict may spill over into Lebanon.
Benedict could call for negotiations in conflict-torn Syria and an end to violence and is also likely to urge skittish Christians afraid of sectarian breakdown and a rise in Islamist extremism not to flee their homelands.
He will no doubt also call on Lebanon’s divided Christian groups to unite.
But the Vatican has said the pontiff will avoid intervening politically in his comments on Syria or tell Christians where their alliances should lie.
Lebanon’s large Maronite Catholic community in particular is divided over support for President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels challenging the regime, but Benedict will be keen to make sure he is not seen to be interfering.
Despite the Vatican’s attempts to heal the rift with the Muslim world following the pope’s famous 2006 blunder, tensions still run high.
His decision to cite from a 1391 text which read “show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman,” sparked an outcry and demands for an apology from across the Muslim world.
Religious observers say that the pope’s point — however badly put — was that violence should never be committed in the name of religion, an issue he feels very strongly about and has brought up several times in his speeches.
It is a message he is likely to repeat during his upcoming trip, as he calls on moderate believers to resort to peaceful means in combating fundamentalism.
The pope’s choice of Lebanon for his Middle East trip is not a casual one: the multi-confessional society — by which government posts are split among religious groups — was hailed by pope John Paul II as a model for the region.
As the balance of power continues to shift in the region and with Christian minorities increasingly agitated, the emphasis will be on religious pluralism.
Benedict, who will meet representatives from Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim communities, will be hoping to mend fences with the Islamic world with his message of peace and unity in the face of extremism.