Pope sees 'new hope' Pontiff ends visit to Lebanon, calls for sovereignty, freedom; 'Open new page in history'; Christians, Muslims urged to reconcile, occupiers to leave

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Pope John Paul II concluded his historic visit to Lebanon yesterday with a strong call for sovereignty, saying the country could never fully recover from its war wounds as long as two occupying armies remain on its soil.

The pope did not specifically name the Syrian troops that patrol the streets of Beirut and man checkpoints in the north of the country. Nor did he mention by name the Israeli army, which has commandeered a chunk of southern Lebanon for a security zone.

But his meaning was clear in a special papal exhortation on the state of Lebanese Christians. He cited "the menacing occupation of southern Lebanon" and the "presence of non-Lebanese armed forces" in the country as two of its pressing problems. Lebanon is still recovering from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

To reach a lasting peace, Christians and Muslims must reconcile their differences, the pope wrote in the 200-page apostolic paper published yesterday. He called on Lebanese Christians, whose power and numbers diminished with the war's end, to remain in the country and participate in its reconstruction.

"Obviously, all this also supposes that the country recovers its total independence, complete sovereignty and unambiguous freedom," the pope wrote.

This was his appeal for an independent Lebanon -- forceful yet diplomatic. The papal document, titled "A New Hope for Lebanon," was released on the final day of John Paul's weekend visit, which drew Lebanese of all faiths -- Maronite Catholic and Druze, Sunni and Shiite Muslim -- to the streets of Beirut to welcome the 76-year-old pontiff.

The pope's last day in Lebanon began with a Mass at Beirut's naval yard. The crowd was unprecedented in recent Lebanese history, with the military estimating attendance at 500,000, more than half the country's Roman Catholic population.

"It's not every year that the pope comes to Lebanon," said Maria Rahme, a 60-year-old grandmother who sat in the shade of an umbrella. "If it wasn't for our faith, why should we come here in this heat?"

Elhan Dada and her cousin Wahiba Harbali, both Muslims, came to the Mass to join in the pope's message of peace and to thank him for his visit.

"When the pope comes to see us, it means everybody can come. It's secure," said Dada, a housewife from Beirut.

Added her cousin: "We were brought up on love for each other. It doesn't matter that we're not Christian."

In his homily, the pope spoke of his great joy in visiting Lebanon, a land where Jesus walked. He delivered a prayerful message and focused on the power of God, the Lebanese people's history of coexistence and their war wounds.

"I am certain that the sufferings of the past years will not be in vain; they will strengthen your freedom and unity," said the pope, who celebrated Mass on a large, awning-covered stage built within sight of Beirut's war-ravaged cityscape.

During the Mass, a cry of "Freedom!" rose from the throng that filled the 34-acre site. Young Lebanese Catholics who attended a special ceremony with the pope on Saturday night called out the same cry in French: "Liberte! Liberte!"

As is his custom when he travels, the pope reserved time to meet with young people. Although thousands of young people joyously welcomed John Paul on Saturday night, a Lebanese student poignantly conveyed his generation's sense of despair. Many were children of the war. And while Lebanese live now in relative calm, this so-called peace is deceiving, said Pierre Najm, a student at St. Joseph's University.

Najm told the pope that his generation feels "hopeless and weak."

"Though the cities are in the process of being reconstructed, the society is a time bomb," Najm said. "And that's because of the absence of the real coexistence between the different religions, the pressure of injustice in a society that is still looking for freedom and independence. We ask you, you who have to come to bring hope, to dare say in a loud voice what we fear to say."

Throughout the pope's two-day visit, many Lebanese Christians expressed pessimism about the state of the country and their future role in it. A peace agreement forged at the end of the war gave the Muslim majority in Lebanon greater control of the government. Lebanese, young and old, complained about discrimination.

Many attending yesterday's Mass said they hoped that the turnout would show the world the strength of the Christian presence in the Middle East.

"We want to send a message to the world, through the presence of the pope," said Habib Akl, 34. "It's a message of peace, and to show that we still exist as a church in Lebanon."

Akl said he hopes television broadcasts of the pope's visit convey a sense of the real Lebanon to the international community. The world "thinks this is a country of camels and extremists who are crazy for Allah," Akl said, referring to the military wing of the Islamic Party of God, known as Hezbollah.

Akl said he agrees with the pope's call for Lebanese to put aside their differences and "open a new page in their history."

"The new page was already started," Akl said. But he said Lebanese were unable "to go on because we are occupied by Syrian forces and, of course, the Israelis."

During the pope's visit, many Lebanese expressed concern about the occupation of their country. Muslims and Christians referred often to the Israeli troops occupying 10 percent of southern Lebanon and the presence of about 35,000 Syrian troops in the country.

Some complained bitterly about the complicity of the government of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in the Syrian occupation. They expressed hope that Pope John Paul would denounce the situation. Instead, the pope opted for diplomacy.

For a week, the smiling face of the pope graced storefronts and billboards in Beirut, far outnumbering the posters and pictures of Syrian President Hafez el Assad that hang throughout the city.

But the pope left last night. The Syrian troops remain.

Pub Date: 5/12/97

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