Christopher Lee

Symbolism of two great beliefs – and neither sees the truth of the other

16th September 2012

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics invaded Beirut this past weekend.  They came to see, hear and pray with their Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. As they did so, thousands of Muslims protested with fire and trashing across three continents.

The Pope called for humility not his words – but as one schooled in the Vatican’s shadow, I’m sure that’s what he meant when he prayed for peace and reconciliation.

As he raised he voice in that ecclesiastic yawn all Popes inherit, the more raucous cries of revenge were posted in the form of fire bombs, abuse and breaking glass at American, British and German embassies across the very un-peaceful Middle East.

The connection with the Pope’s visit to Lebanon, a land of seventeen religious groupings, and the hurled anger of perhaps a minority element of Middle East Islam is that in the whole world the two occasions represent the potentially frightening power of the two contrasting religions of the world today – and any time.  

Of the globe’s seven billion people 1.6 billion are classed as Muslims and about 1billion are Catholics. Add on the other Christian denominations and you have something in the region of 40 per cent of the world believing in the same God and in theory at least, being obliged to leads lives as the varying and various Messengers have insisted that vary-form God demands.

Religion is not the question. After all it is difficult to think of anything new to say about the religion that recognizes the same God.

Levels of religious fervour and what is said and done in the name of Allah, God, Jehovah or whoever called is really the only debate because it is based on the untrustworthy of protagonists. We talk in extremes with one end barely heard or caring and the other clubbing opponents and even some of its own social-economic adherents with uncompromising belief.

As Benedict said Mass here, on the Beirut sea front it was remarkable to see that an estimated 350,000 people had travelled from all over the state and from Iraq and Jordan and further abroad to hear this hunched white cassocked figure in homily.

For in the entire region and for obvious historical reasons, there is no other society as tolerant of religion as Lebanon

Nearly 55 percent of Lebanese are registered Muslims – almost equally Sunni, Shia and some Alawites. There is too the minority and monotheistic Druze who originated from the Ismailism sect of Shias.

Almost the rest, about 40 percent, are Christians – Maronites, Greek  and Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Melkite Catholics, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syrian Catholics.

There is therefore, a history of internecine warfare where the protagonists slip easily into religious groupings in a society that officially does not legislate for and so does not recognize non-religion or indifference.  In Lebanon you have to believe in something.

After all the pressures of rebuilding Lebanon and the deteriorating state of Christianity seemingly anywhere but the African continent, the Christian Lebanese are on the run so more important then, the apparent success of the Pontiff.

What we have here is a tale of two dynamics.

The Pope is for most, even his followers, a vision thing.  He is the Vatican’s symbol sent on tour with no more effect than a royal figure.

The 350,000 in Beirut for Mass will ever remember the moment for its imagery. For most that figure will be just as remote as it is at Easter for the Blessing from the balcony at St Peter’s. His message that we should have peace to all mankind is the message of the Nativity and the Victorian Christmas carols.  What else does he say? There is nothing.

The marauding Muslims from Benghazi to Khatoum to Camp Bastion and beyond are also symbols.  They are radicals but not in the praiseworthy manner as were the radicals of Tahrir Square most of whom were also Muslims.

The Pope asks for, the embassy attackers demand. Their separate messages are believed only by their own people.

Yet for onlookers in Washington, Cairo, the United Nations, the palaces of Saudi Arabia and in London there is a terrible symbolism.  It is of the two great religions just a few miles apart on the same day pleading their cases that the same Allah is Great as if the other did not exist.

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