The civil war in Syria has given a sense of urgency to Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Lebanon starting today, a mission he describes as a pilgrimage of peace for the entire region.
Nearly 40 per cent of Lebanon's four million people are Christian, making it the most Christian nation in the Middle East. The Pope's three-day visit coincides with a visit to Syria by the United Nations-Arab League mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who arrived in Damascus yesterday, where he is expected to meet President Bashar al-Assad.
Fears are rife that Syria's conflict might spill over to Lebanon. Clashes in Lebanon between Syrian groups over the past months have claimed more than two dozen lives and left scores of wounded – and the Christian community in Lebanon is torn between supporters and opponents of Mr Assad. Among his defenders is Michel Aoun, the former Prime Minister and army commander. He is a strong ally of Hezbollah, which is labelled a terrorist group by the US but is the country's most powerful military and political force. Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, welcomed the Pope's visit, describing it as "extraordinary and historic".
Lebanese authorities have imposed strict security measures, suspending weapons permits except for politicians' bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and the northern Christian areas.
Several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have recently urged their citizens not to visit Lebanon because of the recent violence.
The government has declared tomorrow an official holiday in Pope Benedict's honour, however, and given the day off to tens of thousands of workers and students so that they can greet him.