When Pope Benedict XVI comes to Lebanon this week he will find a different country than the one his predecessor, John Paul II, visited 15 years ago.
But one thing remains unchanged, Lebanon is still divided along sectarian lines.
John Paul saw a country still recovering from a devastating civil war, its sectarian wounds still raw.
He brought a message of hope.
Benedict comes to a Lebanon whose political classes are still unable to agree on a common vision for the tiny eastern Mediterranean country of 4.6 million people.
His message is expected to be one of reconciliation, both among Christians and between Christians and Muslims.
The pontiff will encounter new divisions in Lebanon, whose once-dominant Christians have long since been reduced to a minority, their influence now more that of playing a swing role in the power politics of the Muslim majority.
Where Lebanon’s international concerns in 1997 were more with Israel, whose troops occupied a large chunk of the country’s south, they are now focused squarely on Syria, which held sway in its smaller neighbour for decades.
At issue is the Syrian civil war, which has claimed more than 27,000 lives and that some fear threatens to shatter a status quo between the larger and smaller neighbours dating back half a century.
Joseph Bahout, a French professor of political science and Middle East expert, said the “pope arrives to a different Lebanese and regional context that is completely new, very different from that of the past.”
Syrian troops moved into Lebanon early in the 1975-1990 civil war to protect their interests and support their partisans. Those troops remained, as did their ability to project the political will of their masters in Damascus.
“The issue in 1997 was that the country was rebuilding itself as best it could, under heavy (Syrian) domination, with a great deal of hope. Today, that domination has disappeared, and the neighbour that was once the master now faces what could be drastic changes.”
Times began to change when Israel, which had also moved into Lebanon during the civil war withdrew its troops in 2000.
Five years later, former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, once a close ally of Syria, was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Beirut. Syria was immediately suspected, but vehemently denied the murder.
Members of the Shiite Muslim group and Damascus ally Hezbollah have been indicted by a UN-backed tribunal, but they are still at large, and there is little expectation they will ever stand trial.
A domestic and international outcry over the Hariri murder forced Damascus to withdraw its troops after 30 years, and the seeds were planted for a more uncertain relationship.
Following the assassination of Hariri, a multi-billionaire who was the architect of Lebanon’s post civil-war reconstruction, other personalities known for their anti-Damascus stance were also murdered.
Then Lebanon was rocked in 2006 when Israel launched a devastating attack after Hezbollah militants seized three soldiers in a cross-border raid.
And a series of deadly inter-sectarian clashes nearly brought the country into a new civil war in 2008.
Today, Lebanon is divided between a Sunni Muslim-Christian coalition hostile to Damascus and one led by Hezbollah and supported by other Christians who are partisans of the Assad regime.
It would be wrong to say that there is no disagreement over Syria among Orthodox Christians, but the most visible — and vocal — disagreements are to be found among the Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian community, who are in communion with the Holy See.
Bahout said the new challenge the pope must take into account is that Lebanon’s Christians are a minority with diminished influence who must walk a careful path in their relations with the now dominant Sunnis and Shiites.
Hezbollah’s Christian allies are led by Michel Aoun, a former general and key Maronite politician. As with fellow believers in Syria, they fear the fall of Assad could unleash a powerful, Sunni-dominated Islamist wave that could imperil them.
Aoun has raised the threat of a future regime “whose ideology would come out of the Middle Ages.”
In contrast, other Christians squarely and openly back the uprising against Assad, with what they consider its focus on freedom and human dignity.
One of them, Fares Souaid, said “we are not afraid of change; we stare it right in the face,” and criticised “those who behave like a frightened minority.”
What he wants from the pope during this weekend’s visit is that Christians be called upon to be the vehicle for modernisation and the spearhead for such change in the Arab world.
But for now, Ibrahim Kanaan, an MP in the Aoun camp, said “we have not generated a national vision, not only as Christians but Lebanese.”