Pope Benedict XVI leads an open-air mass on Beirut’s waterfront on Sunday. (AFP)
Beirut, Sept. 16 (Reuters): Pope Benedict urged Arab leaders today at a huge open-air Mass in Lebanon to work for reconciliation in a West Asia riven by Syria’s civil war and blazing with fury over a film mocking Prophet Mohammad.
“May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East, the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence,” the pope said in a prayer after Mass that organisers said was attended by 350,000 people.
Activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 18-month-old, mainly Sunni uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect that grew out of Shias.
Few Christians, who form about 10 per cent of Syria’s population, have joined the uprising, fearing that it could bring hostile Islamists to power in a fight raging just 50km east of Benedict’s Mass in Beirut.
Addressing worshippers on the Mediterranean seafront, close to the front-line of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, Benedict said Lebanese people “know all too well the tragedy of conflict and... the cry of the widow and the orphan”.
“I appeal to the Arab countries that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person,” the 85-year-old pontiff said.
Peace between warring factions and among the many religious groups in West Asia has been a central theme of his visit to Lebanon, along with his call to Christians not to leave the region despite war and growing pressure from radicals.
“In a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary,” Benedict said.
The pope has made no reference during his three-day visit to the film denigrating Prophet Mohammad.
Politicians from all sectors of multi-faith Lebanon attended the Mass, including from the militant Shia group Hezbollah. Leaders of the country’s main religions all assured the Vatican of their support for the visit in advance.
The Mass took place on reclaimed land next to the port without any shade for the crowd, despite temperatures of more than 30 degrees centigrade.
The altar was shielded from the sun under a canopy, but the pope was seen mopping sweat from his forehead at one point. Red Cross workers carried away at least two worshippers who fainted from the heat.
Many in the crowd wore white caps bearing the motto of the visit, “salami -tikum!” (Arabic for “my peace I give to you”), a phrase the pope, known as “Baba” in Arabic, has repeated in several speeches.
Cedars of Lebanon, the country’s symbol, featured in a white backdrop to the altar where the pope presided over the Mass, and on the white capes worn by prelates of the Maronite Church, the largest of six Christian churches here linked to the Vatican.