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Pope urges peace, independence for Lebanon

May 11, 1997
Web posted at: 9:15 a.m. EDT (1315 GMT)

(Retrieved from CNN)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on a field created out of a landfill of rubble from Lebanon's long civil war Sunday, delivering a message of peace and reconciliation to more than 300,000 Christians gathered on the 34-acre site. 

"I am certain that the sufferings of the past years will not be in vain," the pope said in his homily. "They will strengthen your freedom and unity."

The war-torn skyline of Beirut rose over the site of Beirut's former Green Line battlefront as the pope opened the Mass -- part of the first papal visit to the Middle East since 1964 and the first ever to Lebanon -- in Arabic.

"Salaam aleikum (peace be with you)," he said.

Also on Sunday, the pope released a 200-page Apostolic Exhortation calling for a reconciliation between Christians and Muslims and urging the complete independence of Lebanon.

"I am aware of the current great difficulties: the threatening occupation of the south of Lebanon, the economic plight of the country, the presence of non-Lebanese forces on the territory," the 76-year-old pontiff wrote in the document.

The pope did not directly call for a pullout of Syrian and Israeli troops from Lebanon -- about 35,000 Syrians and 2,000 Israelis are stationed there -- as Lebanese bishops did in 1995. The pope's document was in response to the bishops' conclusions.

Lebanon's Christians have long felt left out of the political process in the country, where a pro-Syrian, Muslim-dominated government rules. The pontiff took note of the Christians' feeling of isolation.

"No spiritual community can live if it is not recognized, if it finds itself in precarious conditions and if it does not have the chance to participate fully in the life of the nation," he wrote.

Thousands of Christians fled the country -- which has more than a dozen officially recognized religions -- during the 1975-1990 civil war. Both in his Mass and in the document, the pope urged that the two faiths come together for the sake of the country.

"To be really itself, Lebanon needs all its sons and daughters and all components of its population," he said. "Each has its place in the country and must rediscover the taste for living there and taking up the challenge of its future."

The pope was greeted by thousands of Lebanese Christians before Mass Sunday as he was driven through Christian villages along the Mediterranean Sea. He also visited the Maronite Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in the hills north of Beirut.

The Maronites are Lebanon's largest Christian sect, and were considered heretics when they first took refuge in the region in the 4th century. They have long since reconciled with the Vatican.