BEIRUT –- Pope Benedict XVI called on Christians and Muslims on Saturday to forge a common front against warfare, even as battles raged in neighboring Syria and the new U.N. peace envoy to that country conceded that the situation there was deteriorating.
“It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war,” Benedict, 85, told an enthusiastic youth gathering on the second day of his three-day visit to Lebanon.
The pontiff spoke directly to young Syrians who were in attendance, singling them out for praise. “I want to say how much I admire your courage,” Benedict told them. His comments come a day after the pontiff condemned the sale of arms to Syria as a “grave sin.”
Benedict, the leader of the world's Roman Catholics, arrived here Friday as protests broke out in several Arab nations following the Internet distribution of a U.S.-made video that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad. In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, one person was killed as demonstrators burned down a U.S. fast-food outlet Friday and chanted anti-American and anti-papal slogans.
Still, the pope’s presence here was warmly embraced by all religious factions. Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, lauded the papal visit as “extraordinary and historic.”
The pope, calling himself a “pilgrim of peace,” noted that the Middle East “seems to endure interminable birth pangs” but also “saw the birth of great religions and noble cultures.”
Despite the pope’s condemnation of arms trafficking to Syria, the conflict there is increasingly militarized, almost 18 months after the rebellion began.
On Saturday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the new U.N.-Arab League peace envoy, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital. The veteran Algerian diplomat later told reporters that the crisis was “getting worse” and conceded that he had no plan in hand to stem the escalating violence.
Brahimi assisted in brokering the 1989 Taif agreement, which helped put an end to the Lebanese civil war, a punishing episode of sectarian bloodletting that deeply scarred this nation of 4 million.
Photo: Lebanese youths cheer Pope Benedict XVI upon his arrival to a rally near Beirut on Saturday. Credit: Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images