A message of coexistence in pope's visit to Lebanon Its war-weary people to be offered as model for the Middle East

BEIRUT, LEBANON — BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Yellow and white papal flags flutter next to the red and white colors of Lebanon's flag in the Christian neighborhoods of this mercurial city. Posters of Pope John Paul II's smiling face carry his words: "Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message to the world."

When the Roman Catholic pontiff arrives this weekend for the first official visit by a pope to Lebanon, he is expected to emphasize his view of the country as a model for Middle East coexistence. Lebanon is the only Arab nation with a large Christian population. It is the only Arab country that Muslims and Christians jointly govern.


But the message is elusive.

The pope could spend his whole 32-hour visit laying wreaths at the graves of those who have died in clashes of the country's diverse population. About 200,000 Lebanese in the civil war and invasions. Syrian occupiers. Palestinians. Israeli invaders. American, French, Italian and British peacekeepers -- scores of them killed, including 241 U.S. Marines blown up in a terrorist attack a decade ago.


Lebanon is still occupied by 35,000 Syrian troops. Israeli troops occupy a border strip in southern Lebanon.

And the Christians whom John Paul is coming to encourage are bitterly resentful about their loss of dominance. A Syrian-enforced change of the national covenant makes them share power with Muslims. Damascus decides much of what is permitted in Beirut.

"Personally, I would have preferred as a kind of message that the pope said, 'I'm not coming to Lebanon as long as Lebanon is occupied, as long as Lebanon is governed by an illegitimate government," said Dory Chamoun, a Maronite Catholic politician whose late father, Camille, was once president.

The violence has even touched the pope. Two years ago, in an effort to bolster the Christian community, the pontiff convened a synod on the status of Lebanese Christians. He was supposed to visit then, but canceled after a bomb blew up a Christian church in Beirut, killing 10 people.

About 20,000 Lebanese troops are being deployed for security during the pope's visit.

The pontiff will celebrate a Mass that is expected to draw 300,000 people on Sunday and will preside over a rally of 12,000 children, many of them born after the national fratricide that gripped this country until 1990.

But Robert Abu Jawdeh, a Maronite Catholic who runs a grocery in East Beirut, has lived through the worst of it, and he shares the pontiff's hope.

"The pope's visit is not only for the Christians, it's for all Lebanese," he says. "Whether you're a Muslim or a Christian, you want to live in peace."


A poster announcing the pope's visit hangs outside Abu Jawdeh's grocery in the community of Nabaa in East Beirut. The neighborhood exemplifies John Paul's perception of Lebanon as place of coexistence.

The cross of St. Doumit's Church shares the sky with the crescent moon of the corner mosque's minaret. The Muslim owner of a sandwich shop laughs at his Christian neighbor's joke about the lack of arak, a licorice-flavored liquor popular among Lebanese, in his store. Devout Muslims do not drink alcohol.

Nabaa also reflects the legacy of ethnic conflict. Elsewhere in Beirut, gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers are rising. The city's fabled affluent class dines sumptuously in reopened restaurants, dances in discos and packs the Casino du Liban. But Nabaa remains a neighborhood of tenement-like buildings scarred by gunfire.

Maronite Catholics, driven from their homes in the nearby Chouf Mountains overlooking Beirut during the war, still occupy apartments once owned by Shiite Muslims who fled the Christian militias in the city.

For Ibrahim Maatouk, a Shiite Muslim, the year was 1976. He was 9 years old. His father ran a small restaurant in Nabaa. But the fighting between Christians and Palestinians drove Maatouk's family from the neighborhood. Maatouk moved to the south with his parents and siblings. He returned to the neighborhood in 1985.

By then, a Christian was operating a carpentry shop in his old home. Maatouk dreamed of returning there one day. That day came two years ago.


'A passing cloud' of war

The carpenter was among the displaced Christians who had received compensation from the government for the loss of their homes. He agreed to give up Maatouk's family home. Maatouk rebuilt walls blasted by militia shells. He repainted, retiled and opened an eatery like his father's. He named it The Cedars Restaurant.

"I like all the people here," said Maatouk, whose neighbors are mostly Christians. "The war was only a passing cloud. The Christian cannot live without the Muslim and the Muslim can't live without the Christian. Before the war, we used to live together. Why should we be divided now?"

Mona el Kik, a Maronite Catholic, hasn't moved back to her family home. For most of the past 15 years, she has lived in a two-room flat in Nabaa with her husband and four children. The family fled their two-story house in the Chouf Mountains in 1985. Her town was overrun by militias of the Druze, a religious sect with Islamic roots.

"We never went back because we would have been slaughtered by the Druze," she said.

When el Kik's family moved into the Nabaa apartment, the place was a shell. Over the years, they have transformed the space into a home. Pictures of Jesus Christ and St. George, the patron saint of Lebanon, hang from clean, plastered walls. The couches convert into beds for el Kik, her husband and father-in-law. Her three daughters and son share the one bedroom.


As the Muslim call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque, she closes the living room window. El Kik, a seamstress, and her husband, George, a port worker, managed to raise their family here. But they look forward to returning to their land in Silfaya.

Two years ago, el Kik's brother persuaded her to visit the family home there. She arrived to find the house a scorched ruin.

"I couldn't speak," she recalled.

El Kik thought she would never return to the village. But a long-awaited compensation check from the government has enabled her and her husband to rebuild. Her husband has been tilling the land.

"I want to return to my village," said el Kik, 40. "We, as true Christians, the real Christians, do not hold any grudge in our hearts. One nice word from them, the Druze, and we forget."

Papal messages


Some Lebanese Christians hope the visit by John Paul will focus attention on the country's displaced people and the inequities -- they perceive at the hands of the government.

Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and billionaire businessman, is spearheading the ambitious redevelopment of Beirut's ravaged cityscape. Already, several of the bombed-out landmarks of the city have been transformed. But Hariri has been criticized for concentrating his efforts on "stones," not people.

Despite the billions of dollars invested in the downtown project, about 35 percent of Lebanon's 3 million people still live on the edge of poverty. Hariri and others also have been accused of undermining Lebanese democracy by resisting free elections and eroding civil rights.

"The state that is being built today does not respect these values. And that's why Christians feel insecure," said Nassib Lahoud, a member of the Christian opposition in the Lebanese parliament. "They lost power and they did not gain a state that is fair and equitable to them."

On Sunday, Mona el Kik will rise at 4: 30 a.m. to attend a Mass celebrated by the pope. She and her family will walk to the port of Beirut, the site of the Mass.

"We are hoping he will take this Lebanon that we are living in and bring us another one," she said. "That all of us Lebanese will remain with pure hearts.


"Even if nothing happens," she said, "his visit will be a blessing."

Pub Date: 5/09/97