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Posts tagged ‘Michel Suleiman’

Saudis Challenge Hezbollah Lebanon Dominance; Offers Army $3B.

Saudi Arabia will channel $3 billion to the Lebanese army over five years in an effort that analysts interpret as a direct challenge to Hezbollah‘s dominance over Lebanon, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The aid comes in the wake of the Dec. 27 car bomb assassination of Mohamad Chatah, a leading Lebanese Sunni politician and critic of Hezbollah.
The money, which challenges what the BBC termed Hezbollah’s “unchecked power,” has the potential of altering Lebanon’s political structure and could exacerbate sectarian tensions.
Gulf sources told the Journal that the Saudis do not want a direct confrontation with Hezbollah only to “rebalance” its influence in Lebanon.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, a Christian, said Lebanon would use the Saudi money to purchase weapons from France, the BBC reported.
The Journal described the money as intended to strengthen the government’s forces against Hezbollah which is backed by non-Arab Iran. Sleiman described it as intended to enable the Lebanese army to “confront terrorism.”
The Saudi money far exceeds Lebanon’s entire $1.7 billion annual defense budget, according to the Journal.
Demographics play a key role in Lebanon.
Of the 4 million Lebanese, Christians comprise about 41 percent the population; Shiites, 36 percent, and Sunnis about 20 percent. There are also other sects including 250,000 Druze.
Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni, supports the Sunni insurgency against the Assad regime in neighboring Syria, while Shiite Hezbollah has committed fighters to Assad.
Many Lebanese army officers are Shiite and some Sunnis distrust the force as being partial to Hezbollah, the Journal reported.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have been critical of what they see as the lack of American assertiveness in the region particularly regarding Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.
They have responded by more closely aligning with France and generously backing regional allies including the military regime in Egypt.
An earlier U.S. offer to provide $8.7 million to Lebanon’s army was ridiculed as too little by Sleiman, the Journal reported.
There are signs that al-Qaida is gaining a foothold among the Sunni population in Lebanon particularly in Tripoli and Sidon.

The Saudis, while adhering to a strict form of Islam, are longtime antagonists of al-Qaida.

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© 2013 NewsmaxWorld. All rights reserved.
By Elliot Jager


Israel Hits Lebanon After Attack as Regional Tumult Deepens.

The Israeli military said it bombed a site in Lebanon today in response to the first rocket attack from that country in almost two years, adding to the turmoil gripping the Middle East.

The Israeli Air Force struck what it called a terror site in Lebanon in response to a “barrage” of four rockets that targeted populated areas in northern Israel yesterday, the IDF said in an e-mailed statement. One of the incoming rockets was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and two others landed, damaging property, the army said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. No injuries were reported in Israel.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack on Israel, which the military said was the first from Lebanon since November 2011. Israel said it was carried out by a “global jihad terror” organization.

“Yesterday’s attack is a blatant breach of Israeli sovereignty that jeopardized Israeli civilian life,” army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in the statement. “Israel will not tolerate terrorist aggression originating from Lebanese territory.”

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman condemned the rocket assault and ordered his security forces to find the attackers and bring them to justice, Lebanon’s official National News Agency said. Suleiman said the attacks violated the 2006 United Nations agreement ending the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement.

Targeted Site

Israel said it targeted a site in the area of Na’ameh, between the cities of Sidon and Beirut. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Palestinian militant group, told Al Jazeera that one of its bases was the target of the strike, and that no injuries or damage had resulted.

“We will act through a variety of means, to defend ourselves and to preempt attacks, and we will act responsibly,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a text message. “Anyone who will attack us, anyone who will try to attack us, should know we will attack him.”

The Lebanese army found launchers used to fire the rockets in the Tyre area, Lebanon’s official news agency said yesterday. Tyre is 19 kilometers (12 miles) north of Israel.

“The aim of the jihadist militants is to create chaos in the region, and provoking Israel into an attack on Lebanon, or Hezbollah, would certainly serve that aim,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

Peacekeeping Force

The UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, said in a statement yesterday that it sent a helicopter to investigate the reports of rocket fire and urged both sides’ armies to “exercise restraint” to “prevent an escalation.”

The flare-up along the border comes at a time of upheaval in the region. Egypt is reeling from the violent aftermath of President Mohamed Mursi’s ouster and more than 100,000 have been killed in Syria’s civil war, according to UN estimates. The Syrian opposition said in an unconfirmed report on Aug. 21 that more than 1,300 were killed in a chemical attack near Damascus.

The Israel-Lebanon border has been tense though largely quiet since Israel warred with Hezbollah. Militants have fired rockets from Lebanon toward Israel multiple times since the conflict, without any of the incidents developing into a major skirmish.

Hezbollah has not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks since the war, and the military has attributed them to Palestinian groups and others linked to al-Qaida.

© Copyright 2013 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

Lebanon says world must shoulder Syrian refugee burden.

By Michael Stott and Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Michel Suleiman called on Monday for international action to helpLebanon cope with a deluge of refugees from the war in neighboring Syria which he said threatened to set his volatile country ablaze.

In an interview with Reuters at the presidential palace overlooking Beirut – and just 25 miles from the Syrian-Lebanese border – Suleiman compared Syria’s civil war to a conflagration breaking out next door.

“When there is a fire next to your house, you have to assume that it will spread and you have to try to stop it reaching you,” Suleiman, a former army chief elected president as part of a peace deal to end sectarian clashes in Beirut in 2008.

Suleiman said the presence of a million Syrians alongside an existing Palestinian refugee population meant that a quarter of his tiny Mediterranean nation’s population were now refugees.

“Those numbers are more than the capacity of any country to bear,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of material help and relief – the geographic and demographic capacity is saturated and the problems resulting from this massive number affect us socially, economically and on security.”

Lebanon says it is now hosting 1 million Syrians, one third of them officially registered as refugees fleeing a conflict which has killed 70,000 people, according to the United Nations. The remainder are mostly guest workers and their families.

They live among a nation of 4 million, a quarter of the size of Switzerland, which fought a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and whose sectarian faultlines between Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims have been exacerbated by the fighting in Syria.

Suleiman called for an international conference to find ways for other countries to absorb the refugees, along the lines of a 1979 Geneva Convention in which Western nations agreed to settle tens of thousands of “boat people” who fled the war in Vietnam.

“The world should think about how to alleviate this burden from Lebanon…. For humanitarian reasons we cannot turn back any refugee who is hungry, wounded, frightened or persecuted,” he said. “But what to do if there is an epidemic or hunger?”

“The Syrian refugees should be distributed (to other countries),” said Suleiman, adding that Lebanon would never close its border to Syrian refugees.


Sporadic violence has shaken Lebanon since the Syrian uprising erupted nearly two years ago.

Dozens of people have been killed in street fighting in the northern city of Tripoli between a Sunni Muslim majority – which strongly supports the Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad – and a minority from Assad’s own Alawite sect.

In October a top security official, whose investigations had implicated Syrian authorities in an alleged plot to set off explosives in Lebanon, was killed by a Beirut car bomb. The assassination triggered Sunni protests across the country.

“There is a danger. We have to keep extinguishing the fire,” said Suleiman, a Maronite Christian. “The fire extinguisher should always be in our hands.”

“There is an ongoing war, but Syria won’t be divided or partitioned. It would be a catastrophe for all the region, but it won’t happen,” the Lebanese leader said, calling for a concerted push by world powers to end the crisis.

“They should find a political solution. It is imperative that they have an international conference because the damage of what is happening will not be confined to Syria, but will hurt all major powers.

“Europe, Russia and the United States and major powers should agree on a solution and should impose it on Arabs and on the Syrians,” he declared.

International divisions have paralyzed U.N. Security Council action to halt the Syrian conflict. Russia and China have blocked three resolutions backed by Western and some Arab states aimed at putting pressure on Assad to stop the bloodshed.

“I am very worried about the situation,” Suleiman said. “We are working to prevent the explosion. Nobody has any excuse to avoid their responsibilities.

“Those who benefit from the existing situation have no right to subject the country to a problem,” he said, apparently referring to Syria’s local partisans including Hezbollah and its allies, who dominate Prime Minister Najib Mikati‘s government.

Queried on how long he believed Assad could stay in power, the 64-year-old Suleiman was circumspect. “Asked if it could be years, he said: “Maybe. We have experience about this kind of crisis which lasted for many years,” referring to the 1975-90 civil war.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)


By Michael Stott and Samia Nakhoul | Reuters

Syria may exploit instability in Lebanon: Clinton.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Syria could take advantage of a political vacuum in Lebanon, and she urged Lebanese politicians to form a government free of “proxies and agents for outside forces.”

Clinton said the United States supports Lebanese President Michel Suleiman‘s effort to form a new government amid a political crisis following the killing of a top intelligence officer in a Beirut car bombing on October 19.

The car bombing and ensuing clashes brought the civil war in Syria into the heart of Lebanon and triggered a political crisis, with the opposition demanding the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati‘s cabinet.

“We don’t want to see a vacuum of legitimate political authority that could then be taken advantage by the Syrians or by others,” Clinton told reporters in an appearance with Brazil’s visiting foreign minister.

“We call on all parties in Lebanon to support the process that President Suleiman is leading to chose a responsible, effective government,” Clinton added.

Clinton said the United States would not prejudge who should have a role in the new Lebanese administration, which could replace Mikati’s Hezbollah-backed government that critics charge is too close to the Syrian government.

“This must be a Lebanese process. But the Lebanese people deserve so much better: they deserve to live in peace and they deserve to have a government that reflects their aspirations not acts as proxies and agents for outside forces,” Clinton said.

Violence has increased in Lebanon following Friday’s assassination of senior Lebanese security official Wissam al-Hassan, who had worked to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to answer repeated questions on whether the United States believes that Mikati or Hezbollah should play a political role in any new administration.

“We want to see this process move forward. We’ve been very clear about our concerns about the role that Hezbollah is playing inside Lebanon, and inside Syria,” Nuland said.

Lebanon is still haunted by its 1975-1990 civil war. Many Lebanese fear Syria’s war will drag their country back into conflict, destroying their efforts to rebuild it as a center of trade, finance and tourism with a semblance of democracy.

(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Will Dunham)



Flaming roadblocks, gunmen in streets put Lebanese on edge after car bomb linked to Syria.

BEIRUT – Lebanese protesters erected flaming roadblocks and gunmen roamed the streets Saturday in a city on edge after the assassination of a top security official in a powerful car bomb the prime minister linked to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

The crisis raised a terrifying spectre for Lebanese who fear their country could easily plunge back into cycles of violence and reprisal that have haunted it for decades.

Friday’s blast in the heart of Beirut’s Christian area killed eight people, including the country’s intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan. It was the deadliest bombing in Beirut in four years, shattering the country’s uneasy calm.

The government declared a national day of mourning for the victims Saturday, but protesters burned tires and set up roadblocks in anger.

Sharbal Abdo, who lives in the neighbourhood where the bomb went off, brought his 6-year-old son, Chris, and 12-year-old daughter, Jane, to see the destruction Saturday.

“They were very afraid yesterday,” he said. “They need to face this situation. It may be their future.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Saturday linked the bombing to al-Hassan’s high-profile investigation this summer that uncovered what authorities called a plot by Syria to provoke chaos inLebanon with bombings and assassinations.

“I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but in fact we cannot separate yesterday’s crime from the revelation of the explosions that could have happened,” Mikati said at a news conference following an emergency Cabinet meeting.

Mikati, who opponents believe is too close to Syria and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, offered to resign after the bombing, but was asked by President Michel Suleiman to stay.

Al-Hassan’s probe led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Assad’s most loyal allies in Lebanon. Samaha, who is in custody, is accused of plotting a wave of attacks in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. Indicted in absentia in the August sweep was Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad’s highest aides.

Samaha’s arrest was an embarrassing blow to Syria, which has long acted with impunity in Lebanon. Syria has powerful allies here, including the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which now dominates the government.

For much of the past 30 years, Lebanese have lived under Syrian military and political domination.

Damascus’ hold on Lebanon began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in truck bomb along Beirut’s Mediterranean waterfront. Syria denied having any role. But broad public outrage in Lebanon forced Syria to withdraw its troops from the country.

The killings of anti-Syrian figures continued for years, however, and Assad has managed to maintain his influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah and other allies.

Now, as the Syrian civil war rages just across the border, Lebanon increasingly is getting sucked in.

Mikati said Saturday he had offered to resign after Friday’s car bomb, but said Suleiman asked him not to plunge the country into more uncertainty.

The bombing raised fears that the crisis could unleash Lebanon’s sectarian tensions, a dire scenario for a country that endured a devastating civil war of its own from 1975-1990.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon spoke Saturday with Suleiman and stressed the importance of “dissociating the country from regional events” and in Lebanon’s sovereignty, a U.N. spokesman said.

The Syrian unrest has already enflamed tensions here. Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims have tended to back Assad. Al-Hassan was a Sunni whose stances were widely seen to oppose Syria and Hezbollah.

Hundreds of Sunni protesters marched in force through downtown Beirut Saturday, placing the blame squarely on Syria and Hezbollah for al-Hassan’s killing.

“Hezbollah is a terrorist group!” they shouted.

Police were trying to identify the bombers and find out how they managed to target al-Hassan, an important security figure who travelled under great protection and who likely took more precautions following Samaha’s arrest.

“We don’t expect to reveal the crime within few hours,” police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi told Future TV. “The investigation is like a puzzle. You collect the pieces and put them together in a logical way.”

Al-Hassan had many potential enemies.

Besides his investigation of Samaha, al-Hassan helped investigate the 2005 assassination of formerLebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a powerful Sunni figure. An international tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah for Hariri’s killing, although the group denies involvement.

His department also had a role in breaking up several Israeli spy rings inside Lebanon in recent years, Lebanese officials said.

Al-Hassan, 47, who was married with two children, is expected to be buried Sunday next to Hariri’s tomb in downtown Beirut. His family arrived in Lebanon on Saturday on a private plane from Paris, where they live.

Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, condemned the assassination, calling it a “criminal explosion that targets Lebanon and its people.” He also called for self-restraint, saying “the criminal will get his punishment sooner or later.”

But many Lebanese were seething with anger.

In the eastern town of Marj, protesters tried to storm an office of the pro-Syrian Itihad group. Lebanese soldiers pushed them away, wounding five protesters, security officials said. Dozens of people who marched in protest in the border town of Moqueibleh came under fire from the Syrian side of the border, forcing them to disperse, the officials said.

The highway linking central Beirut with the city’s international airport was closed, as well as the highway that links the capital with Syria, the officials said.

In the predominantly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, gunmen were roaming the streets on motorcycles and opening fire in the air.

The army issued a statement urging Lebanese to overcome the crisis and co-ordinate among themselves in order to give a chance to the “the criminal killers who tried through the crime to incite strife and split the country.”


Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.


By Bassem Mroue,Elizabeth A. Kennedy, The Associated Press | Associated Press

Syrian jets hit Lebanese territory near border.

  • Syrians clear the rubble of a house which was destroyed in government airstrike on Saturday, in Kal Jubrin, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)Enlarge GallerySyrians clear the rubble of a house which was destroyed in government airstrike on Saturday, in Kal Jubrin, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)


BEIRUT (AP) — Missiles fired by Syrian warplanes hit Lebanese territory Monday in one of the most serious cross-border violations since Syria’s crisis began 18 months ago, security officials in Beirut and Lebanese state media said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said four missiles fired by two Syrian jets hit a rugged and remote area on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Arsal. No casualties were immediately reported.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman ordered an investigation into the border shelling Monday, without openly blaming Syria.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that the warplanes fired three missiles that fell on the outskirts of Arsal about 500 meters (yards) from the border between the two countries.

“I heard several explosions and saw four clouds of dust billowing from the area,” Arsal resident Nayeh Izzedine said by telephone referring to the border. “I don’t know if it was an air raid but there was a plane in the sky.”

He added that the town had been quiet two hours after the 10 a.m. attack.

The Syrian forces were believed to be chasing rebels in the area, which has been the site of clashes in the past between opposition fighters battling Syrian troops just on the other side of the frontier. Lebanese armed forces have in the past detained people in the region for trying to smuggle weapons into Syria from Lebanon.

Arsal is a predominantly Sunni Muslim town, like the majority of Syria’s opposition that is trying to oust President Bashar Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syrian shells have hit Lebanese territory in the past but the air raid appears to be the most serious violation. Several Lebanese, including a journalist, have been killed and dozens wounded by fire coming from the Syrian side.

Also Monday, Syrian troops shelled rebel-held areas around the country including the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, and the Damascus neighborhood of Hajar Aswad, activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist group the Local Coordination Committees also reported clashes between troops and rebels.

On the diplomatic front, Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi held talks with the Turkish foreign minister on Syria’s crisis, while Iran’s top diplomat joined counterparts from the two countries later in the evening to seek an end to the war.

After the Cairo meeting, foreign ministers from the three countries said they had found common ground between them, but that a solution would not come easy. Cairo is trying to persuade Iran to drop its unquestioned support of Assad in exchange for help in easing Tehran’s regional isolation, officials close to the Egyptian presidency said last week.

In Geneva, an independent U.N. panel confirmed that an increasing number of “foreign elements,” including Islamic extremists, are now operating in Syria, in its first report to say that outsiders have joined a war spiraling out of control.

The investigative panel appointed by the Human Rights Council says some of these forces are joining armed anti-government groups while others are operating on their own.

“Such elements tend to push anti-government fighters toward more radical positions,” the head of the panel, Brazilian diplomat and professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, told diplomats.

The Syrian uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests, has since morphed into a deadly armed insurgency. Hundreds of people are killed every week as the government increasingly relies on air power to try to crush the rebels.

Activists say more than 23,000 have been killed in the conflict.

The government denies that there is any popular will behind the revolt, saying it is driven by foreigners and terrorists. The regime could use the U.N. panel’s report to bolster its claims.

Rebels deny that foreigners had any role starting the revolt, which was one of a series of uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Rebels say Syrians were seeking increased freedom from the autocratic regime. But as the conflict dragged on, some rebels acknowledged the presence of small numbers of foreigners among their ranks.

The U.N. panel also accused government forces and pro-regime militiamen known as “shabiha” of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence and abuse of children. It also accused anti-government armed groups of war crimes including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture.

In a report Monday, Human Rights Watch said it documented more than a dozen extrajudicial and summary executions by opposition forces.

It said three opposition leaders who were confronted with evidence of extrajudicial executions said those who killed deserved to be killed, and that only the “worst criminals were being executed.”

The New York-based group said torture and extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread and systematic.

In Jordan, meanwhile, a visit by the U.N.’s Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to a refugee camp sparked an angry demonstration by refugees enraged at him for earlier meetings with Assad, an Associated Press correspondent who witnessed the protest said.

Teenagers pelted his entourage’s vehicles with stones. Some chanted, “Leave our camp. By seeing Bashar, you’ve extended his life.”

Brahimi did manage to speak with a few of the 31,000 refugees before leaving the Zaatari desert camp. Jordan hosts more than 200,000 displaced Syrians — the largest number in the region.

Many Syrians are skeptical that U.N. diplomacy will produce results. Brahimi himself has called his task “nearly impossible.”


Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.


By BASSEM MROUE | Associated Press

Pope calls for peace as violence hits Lebanon.


BEIRUT (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace and reconciliation among religions Friday as violence over an anti-Islam movie spilled over into Lebanon within hours of his arrival in the tumultuous region.

The pope flew into Lebanon for a three-day visit despite the recent unrest — including civil war in Syria, a mob attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, and a string of violent protests across the Middle East stemming from the film, produced in the United States, which insults Islam.

“I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace,” the 85-year-old pope said upon arrival in Beirut, speaking under a canopy at the airport on a sultry afternoon. “As a friend of God and as a friend of men.”

He denounced religious fundamentalism, calling it “a falsification of religion.”

The crowd at the pope’s arrival was small as security kept most people away from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, which is named after a former prime minister who was assassinated in a 2005 bombing that some blame on the regime in Syria.

The pontiff was welcomed by top leaders, including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker, as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Cannons fired a 21-shots salute for the pope.

“Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region,” he said.

But just hours after the pope arrived, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad, portraying him as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester.

According to Lebanese security officials, a crowd angry over the film set fire to a KFC and a Hardee’s restaurant in the port city of Tripoli, 50 miles (85 kilometers) north of Beirut, sparking clashes with police. Police then opened fire, killing one of the attackers, the officials said.

At least 25 people were wounded in the melee, including 18 police who were hit with stones and glass. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Lebanese authorities tightened security for the pope, suspending weapons permits except for politicians’ bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and northern Christian areas. Army and police patrols were stationed along the airport road, which was lined with welcome banners.

Earlier Friday, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope said he never considered canceling the trip for security reasons, adding that “no one ever advised (me) to renounce this trip and personally, I have never considered this.”

He also praised the Arab Spring uprisings, which have ousted four long-time dictators.

“It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,” the pope said.

The turmoil stemming from the Arab Spring has deeply unsettled the Middle East’s Christian population, which fears being in the crossfire of rival Muslim groups.

Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Mideast — nearly 40 percent of the country’s 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics being the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.

Benedict, the third pope to visit Lebanon after Paul VI in 1964 and John Paul II in 1997, will be addressing concerns by the region’s bishops over the plight of Christians in the Middle East. War, political instability and economic hardship have driven thousands from their traditional communities, dating to early Christianity in the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere.

A Middle East without Christians, the pope said Friday, “would no longer be the Middle East.”

The pope also called for an end to weapons imports to Syria, where rebels say they are desperate for an influx of weapons to help them tip the balance against President Bashar Assad’s regime. According to activist estimates, some 23,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

“The import of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons the war could not continue,” he said. “Instead of the weapons import, which is a grave sin, we should import ideas of peace and creativity and find solutions to accept each other with our differences.”

The papal visit comes amid fears that Syria’s conflict might ignite tensions in Lebanon. Clashes in Lebanon between Syrian groups in recent months have killed more than two dozen people and left scores wounded.

The Christian community in Lebanon is divided between supporters and opponents of Assad. Among Assad’s supporters is former Lebanese prime minister and army commander Michel Aoun, a strong ally of the militant Hezbollah group.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, welcomed the pontiff’s visit, describing it as “extraordinary and historic.”

“I cannot forget the sad and painful events which have affected your beautiful country along the years,” Benedict said, referring to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, which left about 150,000 people dead.

“Looking at your country, I also come symbolically to all countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs,” he said.

After Friday’s ceremony at the airport, Benedict’s convoy drove through Beirut as army aircraft flew overhead for protection. The pope was on his way to the mountain town of Harisa, where he will stay at the Vatican Embassy.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi did not rule out that the pope would meet some supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group that has risen steadily over the decades from anti-Israel resistance group into Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Lombardi declined to say what the Vatican’s position is on the group.


Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this story from Beirut.


By VICTOR L. SIMPSON | Associated Press

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