ROME, Italy/BEIRUT, Lebanon (DPA) - Pope Benedict XVI heads for Lebanon on Friday to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to a region shaken by religious tensions, civil war in Syria and the enduring Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"My apostolic mission to Lebanon, and by extension to the whole Middle East, takes place under the banner of peace," the pontiff said Sunday, in his traditional noon Angelus prayer.
Calling on "all parties" to seek peace and reconciliation, he said he "understood the anguish" of local people and expressed concern for "those who, in search for an area of peace, leave their family and professional life and experience the precarious status of exiles."
Lebanon is currently hosting about 59,000 Syrian refugees, according to estimates released last week by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
The Vatican has repeatedly denied any possibility of cancelling the trip for safety reasons. In a bid to increase security, Lebanese authorities have decided to suspend most weapons licences during Benedict's stay.
"All Lebanese security apparatuses are on a state of alert poised to protect His Holiness the pope," says Father Abdo Abou Kasm, who is in charge of media coordination for the visit.
Lasting from Friday to Sunday, the German pope's trip will be his fourth to the region. He visited Turkey in 2006, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2009, and Cyprus in 2010.
The stated aim of this visit is the signing and publication of the final document from a 2010 synod of Middle Eastern bishops, in which concern was expressed about the dwindling presence of Christians in the region.
In Lebanon, the pontiff will meet local religious leaders, politicians and celebrate mass in Beirut on Sunday. He is also scheduled to meet with some 30,000 Lebanese youth on Saturday.
Christians make up 39 percent of the country's population of 4.1 million. Lebanon is the spiritual centre of the Maronite church, which follows the Catholic church in Rome. It is the third-largest of the 22 Eastern churches.
The visit "means a lot to us Lebanese and Christians in the Middle East at this time, because we feel someone is really praying for us and wants to assure us that we are protected if we stay in this troubled region," Samia Leisha, a Christian mother of three, tells dpa.
Her remarks exemplify the concerns of many Christians who feel threatened by the rise to power of Islamist parties in countries such as Egypt, following last year's Arab Spring uprisings.
"Yes we are afraid, we cannot hide it. The pope's visit to Lebanon will give us hope and assure us to stay here rather than move to Europe to be safe," says Carol Abu Habib, a 24-year-old Christian shop vender in Asharfiyeh.
She worries that the 18-month conflict in Syria is slowly spilling over into Lebanon, especially in the Sunni-dominant northern areas, where Christians are a minority.
In recent months, clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in the northern Lebanese port town of Tripoli have left more than 100 people dead and 200 wounded.
Lebanese Christian clergymen have assured their followers that Benedict will reinforce the message brought by his predecessor, John Paul II, in 1997.
"Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message of peace and coexistence between the East and the West," the late pope said at the time.
Exponents of other religions have also welcomed the pontiff's arrival.
Former Sunni Muslim prime minister Saad Hariri says it is "a sign of hope for all the Lebanese and not only Christians ... and a message of love and peace."
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah, has saluted the pope's visit as "historical" for both Muslims and Christians.