Pope Prays For Peace As Islamist Bonfires Flicker Throughout The World. Symbolism That Is Seen But Not Heard
Ossie Makepeace writes from Beirut: Hundreds of thousands of Catholics descended on Beirut over the past weekend. They came to see, hear and pray with Pope Benedict XVI. As they did so, thousands of Muslims protested across three continents, trashing and setting buildings on fire.
The Pope called for humility – not his words. But as one schooled in the Vatican’s shadow, I’m sure that’s what he meant when he prayed for peace and reconciliation. As he raised his voice in that ecclesiastic yawn all Popes inherit, the more raucous cries of revenge were posted in the form of fire bombs, abuse and breaking glass at American, British and German embassies across the very un-peaceful Middle East.
The connection with the Pope’s visit to Lebanon, a land of seventeen religious groupings and the hurled anger of perhaps a minority element of Middle East Islam, is that in the whole world the two happenings represent the potentially frightening power of the two contrasting religions of the world today – and at any time.
Of the globe’s seven billion people 1.6 billion are classed as Muslims and about 1 billion are Catholics. Add on the other Christian denominations and you have something in the region of 40 per cent of the world believing in the same God and, in theory at least, being obliged to lead lives as the varying and various Messengers have insisted that vary-form God demands.
Religion is not the question. After all it is difficult to think of anything new to say about the religion that recognises the same God form.
Levels of religious fervour and what is said and done in the name of Allah, God or Jehovah is really the only debate because it is based on the untrustworthiness of protagonists. We talk in extremes, with one end barely heard or caring and the other clubbing opponents and even some of its own social-economic adherents with uncompromising belief.
As Benedict said Mass here on the Beirut sea front, it was remarkable to see that an estimated 350,000 people had travelled from all over the state and from Iraq and Jordan and further afield to hear this hunched white cassocked figure in homily.
For in the entire region and for obvious historical reasons, there is no other society as tolerant of religion as Lebanon
Nearly 55 per cent of Lebanese are registered Muslims – almost equally Sunni, Shia and some Alawites. There is too a minority of the monotheistic Druze who originated from the Ismailism sect of Shia.
The rest, over 40 per cent, are Christians – Maronites, Greek and Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Melkite Catholics, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syrian Catholics.
There is therefore a history of internecine warfare where the protagonists slip easily into religious groupings in a society that officially does not legislate for and so does not recognise non-religion or indifference. In Lebanon you have to believe in something.
After all the pressures of rebuilding Lebanon and the deteriorating state of Christianity seemingly anywhere but the African continent and China, the Christian Lebanese are on the run so more important then, the apparent success of the Pontiff.
What we have here is a tale of two dynamics.
The Pope for most, even his followers, is a vision thing. He is the Vatican’s symbol sent on tour with no more effect than a royal figure. The 350,000 in Beirut for Mass will ever remember the moment for its imagery. For most, that figure will be just as remote as it is at Easter for the Blessing from the balcony at St Peter’s. His message that we should be at peace with all mankind is the message of the Nativity and the Victorian Christmas carols. What else does he say? There is nothing.
The marauding Muslims from Benghazi to Khartoum to Camp Bastion and beyond are also symbols. They are radicals but not in the praiseworthy manner as were the radicals of Tahrir Square most of whom were also Muslims.
The Pope asks, the embassy attackers demand. Their separate messages are believed only by their own people.
Yet, for onlookers in Washington, Cairo, the United Nations, the palaces of Saudi Arabia and in London there is a terrible symbolism. It is of the two great religions just a few miles apart on the same day pleading their cases that the same Allah is Great as if the other did not exist.