Pope rejects pleas for crusading role in the Lebanon

Robert Fisk joins 300,000 Maronites attending mass on the former front line
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Beirut - "We ask you ... to say those things which we fear to say and which we have lost the habit of saying," Pierre Najm pleaded with the Pope. "Be our courage and name things by their real name. Be our cry of unhappiness and carry our voice to the whole world."

But Pope John Paul II did not oblige the Lebanese student. There was no direct criticism of Syria, or of the thousands of troops it keeps in Lebanon, or of the domination which it exercises over the Lebanese government.

His response told the whole story of his visit to Lebanon. Yes, he told the student mass at the mountain of Harissa, he understood the frustrations of Lebanese Christians. But they must work for the future of Lebanon and rebuild their country. The message was simple: the Catholic church supported the total independence of Lebanon - but the Christians should stop complaining. "The best thing said was by that boy at Harissa," a middle-aged Christian woman told me as we pushed our way through 300,000 Maronites at yesterday morning's papal mass at what had been Beirut's front line during 16 years of civil war. "But the Pope's visit will make no difference."

She may be right. The Muslim hierarchy lined up to shake the papal hand, the Christians were reminded that Christ taught in Tyre and Sidon, and they were told by their Pope that "insofar as you share in Christ's sufferings, rejoice because the spirit of God rests upon you." But this was not what they wanted to hear.

The few Maronites who chanted for the release of Dr Samir Geagea, the Christian Phalangist militia leader imprisoned for civil war murders - shouting "Hakim, Hakim" (Doctor, Doctor) in front of the altar - were not going to make any difference. Nor were the young men and women at the Harissa mass, anxious to illustrate their conviction that Lebanon lived under oppression, who tied their hands together with papal flags and placed sticking paper over their mouths.

The Pope was not going to attack Syria, nor support the Maronite conviction that Lebanon can have no freedom of speech nor human rights as long as it remains under Syria's control.

True, the Muslim clergy speak out boldly when they fear their people are in danger. But the Pope belongs to a different religion whose separation of theology and politics - "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's" - has never been truly understood by the Maronites. Caesar, as everyone here knows, lives in Damascus - home also to many Christians - and the Vatican has no intention of adopting the suicidal cause of the brutal wartime Christian militiamen.

At the end of his vast open-air mass yesterday, Pope John Paul released the text of a 200-page "apostolic exhortation" which called for the "complete independence" of Lebanon - code for an Israeli and Syrian withdrawal - adding that the "menacing occupation of southern Lebanon [by Israel] and the "presence of non-Lebanese armed forces" (ie the Syrians) "feeds passions, as well as the fear that the values of democracy ... which this country represents might be compromised."

But that was all the Maronites received from the Pope. A chosen few, of course, kissed the papal hand, including clergymen, ministers and other Lebanese officials.

One of those who received such a privilege on Saturday was Elie Hobeika, Lebanese minister of electricity and water resources. Surely this could not be the same Elie Hobeika who, according to the Israelis, led their Christian Phalangist militia allies in the wholescale slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian Muslims at Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982? Indeed it was.

Mr Hobeika, however, still claims he was in Sweden at the time of the massacre. Which was just as well for the Pope, who was later to tell us that there is no sin so horrible that it cannot be forgiven.