Pope faces mission impossible in Lebanon's blood-soaked land land drenched with blood

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The pro-Iranian Hizbollah would like the Pope to call for "the liberation of Jerusalem from Zionist hands." Retired General Antoine Lahd, Israel's proxy militia leader in southern Lebanon, has told the Pontiff to make it clear that Lebanon is far from being the "pretty picture" painted by John Paul II, and is "governed by a handful of tyrants imposed by Syria".

Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, has announced that the Pope's functionaries in Rome are right-wing supporters of a Maronite Catholic coup in Lebanon.

Sheikh Said Shaaban, the radical Sunni Muslim priest in Tripoli, has denounced "attempts to turn the Pope into God".

Poor old Pope. Just after midday today the sick old man of the Vatican is due to touch down at Beirut airport to visit the land where trust between faiths exploded into 16 years of Christian-Muslim savagery.

And there were dark shadows from the nation's past, right on cue, demanding that the elderly Pole expel the Israelis from Islam's third holiest city, drive the Syrians from Lebanon and denounce his own Church for its supposed, if unprovable, support for a right-wing militia whose leader has received three commuted death sentences for mayhem and murder untold.

God this, God that, and God the other thing -

'Good God', said God. 'I've got my work cut out'.

John Squire's First World War sympathy for the Almighty applies all too well to the 77-year old prelate, who must spend the next two days in 200,000-strong Masses and meetings with government leaders and Muslim clerics.

Yet, if he is to satisfy the Lebanese, John Paul II must produce miracles rivalling those which were performed in southern Lebanon by the man whose Vicar he believes himself to be.

Christ taught in Tyre and Sidon and turned water into wine at Cana, though Qana is now more closely associated with blood. But the Pope needs to choose his words carefully. He will, they say, support Lebanon's multi- confessional state, a nation based on mutual respect and shared cultures.

Well, we shall see. According to the Vatican, the Pope arrives to "to heal the wounds that can reopen, to move Lebanon towards what it was before, a symbol of religious cohabitation." This is pushing it a bit. Before the war, a Maronite Catholic minority dominated the French-created state. That very imbalance was one cause of the war.

But the Lebanese - generous to a fault to every visitor - appear to welcome the world's most famous Slav, Muslim and Christian alike ready to sit before their television sets throughout the weekend as a dying man tries to reunite a land which lost 150,000 of its sons and daughters in civil war.

Will the Great Man be given any touristic guidance when he passes the sites of the country's greatest bloodbaths? Outside the airport he must pass the scalded concrete ruins of the US Marine base in which 241 Americans were killed by a Muslim suicide bomber in 1983.

A little further down the road, he will drive close to the mass grave of hundreds of Palestinians killed by his Lebanese co-religionists who were sent into the camps by Israel in 1982. In the mountains to his right, the Druze, led by W Jumblatt Esq, cut the throats of many a Christian during the 1983 mountain war.

The Pope may call for an end to human rights abuses, a coded objection to Syria's military presence in Lebanon, but his message will have to be truly pastoral to pass muster before the ranks of ex-militiamen.

And yet. There is always an "and yet" in Lebanon. For the Pope's visit marks another stage in Lebanon's revival and begs an important question. If the Pope can come to Lebanon, why do the Americans still ban their citizens from visiting the country? If he can come to a nation in which the Hizbollah once demanded an Islamic republic, what does the world have to fear from this beautiful land?

Well, let the Pope travel between appointments only aboard the UN's Italian- crewed Huey helicopters. Lebanon's own army Hueys are now reckoned so dangerous that the UN refuses to service them. Brave pilots, the Lebanese. Tough man, the Pope. But Mission Impossible.