BEIRUT — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the Lebanese capital on Friday as anti-U.S. protests convulsed the region and fighting with sectarian overtones raged in neighboring Syria.
The pontiff, calling himself “a pilgrim of peace,” denounced as a “grave sin” the transfer of weapons from any country to Syria, where rebels armed in part with smuggled weapons are waging a violent campaign to oust President Bashar Assad.
“The import of weapons has to finally stop,” Benedict, who is on a three-day trip to Lebanon, reportedly told journalists Friday. “Without the import of arms the war cannot continue. Instead of importing weapons, which is a grave sin, we have to import ideas of peace and creativity.”
Meantime, the fast-expanding protests over a video made in the United States ridiculing the prophet Muhammad spread Friday to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a hotbed of conservative Islamists.
Demonstrators in Tripoli set fire to a U.S. fast-food outlet, chanted slogans assailing the United States and the pope, and tore down banners and posters welcoming the pontiff, according to the Daily Star, a Beirut-based English-language daily. One person was reportedly killed in clashes between protesters and Lebanese security forces.
All of Lebanon’s religious groups, including parties representing Sunni Muslims and Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim organization, have welcomed the pope’s visit. Christians make up more than one-third of Lebanon’s population, the highest proportion of any Middle East nation. Various sects and political factions have worked out a power-sharing arrangement that has, in recent years, helped keep the peace.
Lebanon is still recovering from a brutal sectarian civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990 and left the nation in a shambles.
The pope did not specify any nation or individual as an arms supplier to Syria. But he unequivocally condemned the widespread trafficking of weapons into the beleaguered country.
His comments come against a backdrop of a booming arms trade that has helped fuel the rebellion in Syria. Many members of Syria’s Christian minority — 8% to 10% of Syria’s population — fear an Islamist takeover should Assad be overthrown.
Weapons smuggled into Syria from neighboring countries, including Lebanon, have been a key source of arms for rebel forces.
Several Persian Gulf nations, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have widely been reported to have provided funds and arms to antigovernment fighters in Syria. Neighboring Turkey has hosted rebel factions and has been accused of facilitating arms transfers to opposition forces in Syria. Turkey has denied providing arms or allowing arms deliveries to Syrian insurgents.
The United States and other Western nations calling for Assad’s departure say they have provided only “nonlethal” aid to the Syrian rebels. But the Obama administration has not denounced the reported arming of the opposition by certain Gulf states and other nations.
Syrian rebels, in turn, have accused Assad’s allies — including the government of Iran and its Lebanese protege, Hezbollah — of providing arms and troops to the Syrian military. Officials of Iran and Hezbollah have denied that any such military aid has been provided to their ally.
Russia, where much of the population is Orthodox Christian, has also been accused by the opposition of providing arms to the Assad government. But Russian officials say most arms sales to Syria happened well before the rebellion began early last year.
In addition to his comments about Syria, the pope praised the “Arab Spring” uprisings and told reporters the revolts were a result of a “desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity.”
Some minority Christians in Egypt and other nations fear that the ouster of secular strongmen such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Kadafi has resulted in a wave of religious intolerance toward Christians and other minorities.