Thousands greet pope in Lebanon John Paul II urges Christians, Muslims to put aside hostility; Young urged to lead way; Pontiff signs document calling for removal of Syrian, Israeli troops


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Pope John Paul II encouraged the people of Lebanon, a nation still wracked by the pain of civil war, to open "a new page in their history" yesterday and urged the country's youth to build bridges between the different communities.

"You will be the artisans of peace and love," he told thousands of young people who waited hours to hear his address.

His arrival in Lebanon, the first official visit by a pope to the Middle East, brought together all segments of Lebanese society, most of whom put aside, if only for a day, their political and religious differences.

L Christians and Muslims alike turned out to welcome the pope.

Thousands lined the streets of Beirut, waiting for the pope to drive by in his glass-enclosed vehicle.

Muslim women wearing the head scarves of the observant stood alongside Christian teen-agers wearing T-shirts and baseball caps bearing John Paul's likeness.

Some sang hymns; others threw rose petals and rice in accordance with Lebanese tradition.

Nearly all shouted the Arabic word for pope, "Baba, Baba."

As he drove from the airport to the presidential palace, Pope John Paul could see the scars of Beirut's 15-year civil war -- bombed-out buildings remain along the streets that were urban battlefields from 1975 to 1990.

He could also glimpse the steel-and-glass structures rising in Beirut's multibillion-dollar postwar rebuilding.

Amid the cheering crowds stood an army of Lebanese soldiers providing stringent security for the pope's visit.

Tanks were stationed throughout the city, and helicopters flew overhead.

Many Lebanese hoped that the pope's visit would call attention to the political tensions that grip the nation.

As many as 30,000 Syrian troops have remained in Lebanon since the war's end.

Israeli forces continue to occupy South Lebanon and trade gunfire with Islamic resistance fighters.

John Paul acknowledged Lebanon's troubles.

Upon his arrival, he urged the international community "to help Lebanon regain peace and sovereignty."

The stated reason for the pope's visit was to approve the findings of a 1995 synod on the state of the Lebanese Christian community.

Last night he signed the document, which includes a call for the withdrawal of both Syrian and Israeli troops.

Lebanese Christians, who represent about a third of Lebanon's 3.2 million people, hoped the pope's visit would also spotlight inequities they perceive in a postwar agreement that gave the Muslim majority a firm hold on the government.

John Paul invited all Lebanese "to engage in the service of peace and reconciliation so violence will never triumph over dialogue, nor fear and caution over confidence, nor hatred over fraternal love."

'The wealth of Lebanon'

But he saved his most poignant words for the youth, whom he called "the wealth of Lebanon."

Tens of thousands of young people jammed the Basilica of Notre Dame de Harissa and the plaza behind the church, on a mountaintop about 12 miles from Beirut.

A large statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, towers over the complex, which has a sweeping view of the Mediterranean Sea and the Beirut suburbs below.

The teen-agers and college students, most of them born during the civil war, spent the hours before the pope's arrival joyously singing hymns in the church.

They waved silk scarves in a rainbow of colors.

They shouted "Long live the pope" and chanted his name over and over.

For some young people, their excitement about seeing the pope was tempered by their concerns over the future of their country and their place in it.

"We are not only here because we're Christians," said Danny Naaman, a 25-year-old advertising salesman. "We're here because we're Lebanese.

"Why don't we have peace? Why do we have Israelis in Lebanon? We are suffering. We would like to live in peace."

Joelle Maalouf, 23, worries that the aim of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who is a Sunni Muslim, is to turn Lebanon into a Muslim country.

"I see the position and life of Christians in other Middle East countries," she said, referring to the oppression of Christians in some Arab nations.

"I don't want my life to be like that."

'Bring us more together'

Lana Helou, 23, was more concerned with the relationships among Lebanese, Christian and Muslim alike.

She said she hoped the pope's visit would "bring us more together."

"Even though we're all Lebanese," she said, "we may hold some grudges from the war."

John Paul told the Lebanese youths they hold the key to their future and the future of the country.

The path to peace, democracy and freedom begins with each of them, the pope said.

"It is up to you to make the walls fall, the walls that could have been erected during the painful period of the history of your country," he said in his outdoor address to the thousands who filled the church square.

"Do not erect new walls in the heart of the country.

"It is up to you to construct bridges between people, between families and between the different communities."

Before the pope left the mountaintop church, the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to him. (His birthday is a week away.)

Pub Date: 5/11/97

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