Friday, September 14, 2012

Papal Visit to Lebanon

Lebanon has been abuzz for weeks now in anticipation of the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. The highways have been decorated with billboards and banners in the Maronite areas, which are in Northern and Eastern Beirut. Maronites are in full Communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and are about 30% of the population of Lebanon.

Beirut is a heavily segregated city, and the Maronites and Muslims live apart from one another, avoiding daily contact for the most part. The neighborhoods in our area, Msaytbeh and Burj Abu Haidar are Muslim, so there's been no activity or preparation for his visit here. “You can tell when you're leaving a Maronite area,” I told a group of visitors this week, “because you'll cross a street and the Papal banners will disappear.”

Since we live only a few blocks from the path of the motorcade, we thought it would be fun to stroll over and catch a glimpse of the Pope's car as he came through. All the major highways were closed for the whole afternoon, and side roads were blocked, so most people in Beirut stayed home or left work early.

There were no crowds along the highway, even though it is a heavily populated area. There were no banners or streamers, nor cheering throngs. A few groups of curious onlookers were kept back from the highway by armed soldiers stationed all along the route.

Salim Salaam Avenue is usually packed with traffic
Cars normally park on the sidewalks.

“Seeing the roads so empty was more unusual than seeing so many guards,” Kim commented. “That doesn't surprise me any more because we see tanks and guards all the time.” The highway is normally crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic, and people even park on the sidewalks because it is so crowded. “I was also curious to see how the Muslims would react to the Pope,” she said. “They were really just curious like me. They were more interested in the helicopters, guns, and soldiers closing the roads.” Even the parked cars were all removed, because any one of them could be a danger.

Security was very heavy for the motorcade, as might be expected. As helicopter gunships circled overhead, his armored Limo was escorted by dozens of police vehicles, including about six jeeps that had heavy machine guns mounted on the roof. A lead car came ahead of the whole motorcade by about two kilometers, and Kim and I joked about how the Pope should really be in that car, with a double in the official car bearing his flag.

The Pope is the guy in the back, we think!

Olivia was excited by the whole event. “There were a lot of cars, and I got to see the Pope's head!” she exclaimed afterward. John had been hoping to see more than a Limo and a glimpse of the Pope, but was interested in all of the armed vehicles in the motorcade. He's more excited about giving a shout out to all his friends in Guntersville. After the motorcade passed, most of the onlookers remained, watching the highway to see when the Army would pull out.

The airport is in the southern part of the city, and the Papal motorcade traveled through many Muslim neighborhoods like ours before reaching the Christian areas to the north, where his real welcome will begin. He'll be received at the Vatican Embassy in Harissa. We visited that area just the other day and saw the “Lady of Lebanon” shrine which he will visit. His theme for the visit is “I give you my peace” and hopefully his visit will encourage people in Lebanon toward peace.

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