By Indipendent Catholic News
by Michael Glackin
Pope Benedict XVI called on Arab governments and the world to propose solutions to end the bloody conflict in Syria as he celebrated an open-air Mass in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Beirut today (Sunday).
Just before delivering his final blessing at the end of a two hour service the Pontiff said: "We pray to the Virgin Mary to help all the peoples of the region, especially the Syrian people. You know the problems that beset the region. There is a tremendous amount of pain. Why so much death? I call on the international community and Arab countries to propose solutions which respect human rights."
The Mass was held at Beirut's Central Waterfront, an area that is not far from the old front-line of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. The Pope said Lebanese people knew "well the tragedy of conflict and the cry of the widow and the orphan".
Initial estimates put the attendance at tens of thousands of people, many of whom had come from all corners of the Middle East for the service.
Christians make up about a third of Lebanon's population, but are estimated to account for just five per cent of the population of the wider Middle East, way below the 20 per cent figure of 80 years ago.
Among the congregation was Saad, one of a group of 21 Chaldean Catholics who had travelled from Kirkuk in Iraq to attend the Mass.
Chaldeans are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and along with other Iraqi Christians have suffered persecution in the continuing bloody aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.
He said: "The situation is still volatile in Iraq, but we were determined to be here. To be so near the head of our church is very special for us. The Pope's visit supports Christians in Iraq and across the Middle East. It means we are not alone in this part of the world, it reminds us that there are many of us and shows us we can support each other and express our faith openly."
Loraine, a Californian student at the American University of Beirut, echoed Saad's view. "His message of peace is made real by the fact he is making it here, in the Middle East, not miles away on another continent. He has re-energised the faith by being here, everyone was excited at Mass."
Fourteen year old Melissa travelled to the service with a group of friends from the Lebanese town of Mar Chaaya, 14 miles from Beirut. She said: "The Pope's visit is important for us as Christians. His message about Christians remaining here and not emigrating will also encourage my generation to remain and build a better Middle East."
Jerome and Sarah, a married couple from the Philippines who have lived in Lebanon for three years, felt the visit would help ease sectarian tensions in Lebanon. Jerome said: "People in Lebanon are intelligent enough to appreciate what the Pope's message is when he talks about peace and reconciliation. I think he really has been heard during this visit."
Sylvie travelled from Byblos, 20 miles north of Beirut with her sons, Jean Paul and Fadi and her sister Nicole and her son Stephen. Sylvie said: "The Pope's message about peace and reconciliation and his fears about Christian emigration are all important issues for the Middle East and Lebanon. But they are also the universal aspirations of everyone. Everyone in the region should hear his message."
Crowds began flocking to the Beirut's downtown Waterfront where the service was held some three hours before Mass was due to start.
All the streets around downtown Beirut were closed to traffic so huge crowds of worshippers had to walk to get to the Papal Mass, meeting others on the way, just as they did 2,000 years ago when the people of this region first heard Jesus preach in the open air.
Security was tight, with armed troops frisking worshipers as they entered the area where the Mass was being heard.
Despite the soaring heat, there was a carnival atmosphere prior to the service with impromptu singing and dancing breaking out throughout the crowd.
Young people from Lebanon's Scouts and Girl Guides movement handed out goody bags with water and baseball caps to worshippers which were gratefully received as the temperature soared to 32 degrees by the time the Pope arrived in his familiar Popemobile.
Although the specially constructed altar was shielded from the sun under a large canopy, the Pope was seen mopping sweat from his forehead at one point during the Mass, and looked visibly tired.
Cedars of Lebanon, the country's symbol, formed a huge white backdrop to the altar, while hymns in Arabic were mingled with traditional Gregorian and classic Catholic works throughout the service.
After Mass the Pope left to preside at an ecumenical gathering in the Syro-Catholic Patriarchate of Charfet, which will conclude his visit to Lebanon.