Pope urges Middle East peace in Beirut Mass


POPE BENEDICT XVI yesterday celebrated a Mass attended by hundreds of thousands of people on Beirut’s seafront and called for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East as violence flared in neighbouring Syria.

Many of the 350,000 who gathered at Martyrs’ Square near the tomb of slain former prime minister Rafic Hariri, wore white and waved yellow-and-white papal flags as the pope arrived. The crowd included Christians from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria as well as Muslims and Druze.

The pope urged the region’s diminishing Christian community to remain there and strive to end “the grim trail of death and destruction” in the Middle East. He called on Arab countries to find a solution for the Syrian crisis and to stand against Muslim fundamentalism which has increased since the advent of the Arab spring in late 2010 and has led to global protests against US embassies against Innocence of Muslims, a US-made film denigrating Islam and insulting the prophet Muhammad.

The pope’s last stop during his three-day visit was at a Syriac Catholic monastery north of Beirut, where he met prelates of non-Catholic denominations and called for Christian unity.

Clashes continued in Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib province in northwest Syria. Syria’s state news agency, Sana, reported that troops captured and cleared rebels from the central Midan district in Aleppo after several days of fighting during which churches and mosques were damaged.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Gen Muhammad Ali Jafari announced that officers from the elite Quds force were advising the Syrian army but insisted they were not taking part in fighting. He said, however, that Iran could provide military support if Syria is attacked.

After a meeting with president Bashar al-Assad, US-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said: “The crisis is dangerous and getting worse . . . it is a threat to the Syrian people, the region and the world.” He pledged to “make a great effort” to end the bloodshed. While Mr Brahimi said he was in “listening mode”, his talks with president Assad reportedly involved exchanges of proposals.

“The success of the political effort is linked to pressing countries which fund and train the terrorists..to stop such activities,” said the president.

Mr Brahimi also held talks with domestic opposition groups. The National Coordination Board, consisting of Arab nationalists, socialists and Kurds, vowed to support his mission.

A second secular organisation, Building the Syrian State, said it had submitted to Mr Brahimi a proposal for a ceasefire and mediated talks between the regime and the opposition which has been accepted by the government. The group said external powers had to halt militarisation of the conflict and promote a transitional period for ending the regime.

In a bid by the government to project a climate of normality, the school year began yesterday. Of the 22,000 schools in the country, 2,000 have been destroyed or damaged, while hundreds are occupied by displaced persons asked to relocate.