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Pope arrives in Lebanon with message of peace

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BEIRUT — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon on Friday and urged peace at a time of great turmoil in the Middle East, saying the import of weapons to Syria during the country's civil war is a "grave sin."

The three-day visit comes as war rages in neighboring Syria and in the aftermath of a mob attack that killed several Americans in Libya, including the U.S. ambassador.

"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."

Earlier, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope called for an end to weapons imports to Syria and called them a sin. Syria's rebels have appealed for weapons shipments to help them fight the regime.

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 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.

Lebanese authorities are enacting stringent security measures, suspending weapons permits except for politicians' bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and the northern Christian areas.

The visit brings the pope to the nation with the largest percentage of Christians in the Mideast — nearly 40 percent of Lebanon's 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.

"We are hopeful that your visit to our country will bring good to the Lebanese and the people of this region, including eastern Christians who are rooted in this land," President Michel Suleiman said in a welcoming speech. "We welcome you on a sacred land."

Army and police patrols were stationed along the airport road, which was decorated with Lebanese and Vatican flags as well as posters of the pope and "welcome" signs in different languages.

"Welcome to the land of resistance," read some Arabic banners, signed by Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group.

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."

The pope denounced religious fundamentalism, calling it "a falsification of religion"

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.

"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 county, 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.

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.

The pope's visit also comes after several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have urged their citizens not to visit Lebanon because of security concerns over the recent violence.

But the pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters this week that the trip has never been in question and that Benedict has made clear he expects to be warmly welcomed. The government has declared Saturday an official holiday in Benedict's honor and given the day off to tens of thousands of workers and students so they can greet him.

Lombardi said Benedict may also meet with Syrian refugees, but that has not been confirmed. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday the number of Syrian refugees seeking its help now tops a quarter-million, with at least 66,915 in Lebanon.

The 85-year-old Benedict is likely to get a full briefing on the region's problems when he meets with Lebanese political and religious leaders and his own bishops from the region.

Vatican spokesman 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.

The Lebanese army has imposed a 10-day ban on gliding over the coastal town of Jounieh and the mountain area of Harisa and its surroundings. Harisa, famous for its giant statue of the Virgin Mary, is the site of the Vatican ambassador's residence, where Benedict will stay. The main public event of his visit is Mass on Sunday on the Beirut waterfront.