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English Version

Lebanese of all confessions pray for the Pope

People share memories of John Paul ii's visit to lebanon in 1997

As the 84-year-old pope lay ailing in his Vatican pavilion, Lebanese of all religions and confessions were united in prayer and grief. For most Lebanese, John Paul II is the only Pope they have ever known. "We all knew the Pope's health over the last months had been very critical, and we were being slowly prepared for this to happen," said Helene Haddad, 25, "however, now that it's happening, I have the feeling we will never be prepared for his departure."

Haddad's colleague, a Shiite 32 year old male, said that Jean Paul II was the "greatest communicator" the century had known.

"He was a great man, with many humanitarian achievements," the man, who asked to remain anonymous said, "I think people from all religions will be affected by his departure."

Emphasizing Jean Paul II's popularity among young people, Reverend Fadi Bou Nassar, a former theology teacher described how the Supreme Pontiff displayed great charisma during more than 170 visits to over 115 countries over the past 20 years.

Describing his visit to Lebanon in 1997, Bou Nassar remembered how Catholics and non-Catholics had flocked by the millions to glimpse the pope.

"Some of the people who greeted him were not even Christians," said Bou Nassar.

Ali, a 22 year-old computer science student at the American University of Beirut and a Sunni Muslim, said he would never forget how people greeted the pope in 1997.

"At his appearance, the crowd went wild," he said, "some falling to their knees and weeping as John Paul parted the crowd in his pope-mobile."

"It was such an incredible moment," he said, "you could feel the vibrations in the air. I waved to him and I think I saw him smiling back at me."

During his visit in 1997, John Paul II described Lebanon as a "unique example of inter-communal coexistence"

The visit was the widely-traveled Pope's first trip to Lebanon.

It was also the first time that a head of the Catholic Church had paid an official visit to Lebanon, though Pope Paul VI made a brief stopover at Beirut airport in 1964 on his way to Bombay.

At the Vatican's residence in Harissa on the evening of May 10, 1997, the pope signed the Apostolic Guidance - a 200 word document encompassing his views on Lebanon and urging coexistence in the country.

"It is unthinkable that members of the same human community, living on the same soil, could come to distrust each other, to oppose each other and to exclude each other in the name of their respective religions," he wrote.

During his visit, he also aired his views to huge crowds of young people in Harissa that night, describing them as the "bel horizon" or beautiful horizon.

Frequently interrupted by chanting and singing from the audience, the Pope told the crowd of some 10,000 raucous youngsters they were the "treasure of Lebanon" and urged them to bridge the sectarian divide.

"I ask you to be patient, destroy the barricades, build new bridges of communication among each other, work on sharing a social life and strengthen relations. For the rebuilding of Lebanon needs an essential key, the key of love," he said.

The Pope's speech that night was noted for its call on Christians to take the initiative in imposing their presence on society rather than relying on papal recognition of their perceived woes.

It was a theme echoed throughout his two-day visit in which he acknowledged Lebanon's multi-denominational status and declared that all religions and sects have a role to play in the country.

Speaking to reporters after the Pope's departure, the late Rafik Hariri - who was prime minister at the time - commented on the Pontiff's visit saying:
"It was very important for Lebanon and the Lebanese. The Christians are relieved he came and the Muslims are happy too."

Asked what he considered the most important aspect of the pope's visit, he said: "His insistence on co-existence, national unity, and his condemnation of war."

According to Maria Rossi, co-director of the Italian polling firm Opinioni, "John Paul II's popularity among the general public has almost always been higher than the popularity of the church as an institution, so it's not too surprising that interest would wane when the pope is not around."

A few weeks ago, a talk was given in Rome entitled "The pope is a rock star."

"That may seem flippant to some, but there is an element of truth to it," said Reverend Thomas Williams, dean of theology at Rome's Pontifical Regina Apostolorum, "the pope has always been a larger-than-life figure who drew crowds both because of who he is and because of what he represents."

Beirut,04 08 2005
Jessy Chahine
The Daily Star
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