BEIRUT (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace Friday at a time of deep turmoil in the Middle East, calling the flow of weapons into Syria a “grave sin” as the country endures a bloody civil war.
The pope arrived in Lebanon for a three-day visit despite the recent unrest in region — including the war in neighboring Syria, a mob attack that killed several Americans in Libya, including the U.S. ambassador, and a string of violent protests across the region stemming from an anti-Islam film.
“I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace,” the pope said upon his arrival in Beirut. “As a friend of God and as a friend of men.”
But just hours after his arrival, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over the anti-Islam film produced in the United States called “Innocence of Muslims.” The movie 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 Friday to a KFC and an Arby’s restaurant in the northeastern city of Tripoli, 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 allowed to brief the media.
Lebanese authorities enacted stringent security measures for the pope, suspending weapons permits except for politicians’ bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and the northern Christian areas. Army and police patrols were stationed along the airport road.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope, who is 85, 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.”
The pope denounced religious fundamentalism, calling it “a falsification of religion.”
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 cross-fire of rival Muslim groups.
Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Mideast — nearly 40 percent of Lebanon’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 hardships have driven thousands from their traditional communities, dating to early Christianity in the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere.
Also Friday, the pope called for an end to weapons imports to Syria. Syria’s rebels have said they desperately need weapons to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime.
“The import of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons import 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 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 upon arrival.
After a ceremony at the airport, Bendict’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.
The papal visit comes amid fears that Syria’s conflict might spill over to Lebanon. Clashes in Lebanon between Syrian groups over the past months have claimed the lives of more than two dozen people and left scores wounded.
The Christian community in Lebanon is divided between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar 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 XVI said, referring to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war that 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.
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.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.