BEIRUT – Pope Benedict XVI made a sweeping appeal Sunday for peace in Syria and the Middle East, decrying the violence “which generates so much suffering.”
Speaking at an open-air Mass before a huge crowd, he urged the international community and Arab countries in particular to find a solution to end the conflict in neighboring Syria.
“Why so much horror? Why so many dead,” Benedict said, lamenting that “the first victims are women and children.”
With pilgrims from across the Middle East in the crowd, he said Christians must do their part to end the “grim trail of death and destruction” in the region.
“I appeal to you all to be peacemakers,” Benedict said.
Benedict spoke from an altar built on land reclaimed with debris from Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, calling for peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said local organizers put the crowd at some 350,000 people.
The 85-year-old pope said that justice and peace are needed in building “a fraternal society, for building fellowship.”
Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University, said the pope’s visit is political and its message is that “the West does not want Christians to leave the Middle East.”
She added that the visit calls “for living together between Muslims and Christians.”
“This is a visit of political interest more than religious interest. It is a political visit that should help in reducing tension between Christians and Muslims in general,” she said.
Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, told the pope shortly before the Mass began, “Your visit is a safety valve at a time when Christians feel the instability and are faithfully resisting to confirm they are deep-rooted in this land despite the major challenges.”
Many Christians in the Middle East are uneasy at the Arab Spring, which has led to the strengthening of Islamist groups in most countries that have experienced uprisings.
Nawaf al-Moussawi, a representative of the Shiite Islamist militant group Hezbollah who attended the Mass, told Lebanon’s LBC TV: “Our message is that we want to work together for a Middle East and a region where religions and sects live on the basis of justice that leads to peace.
“What we complain about in the region today is that we are suffering from the injustice of colonial policies,” al-Moussawi added in an apparent reference to U.S. policies. “We only see its fleets.”
The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Spokesman Lombardi declined to say what the Vatican’s position is on the group.