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Muslims join Christians in greeting pope

May 10, 1997

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Religious leaders in turbans greeted him. Women in veils waved at him. In this country of diverse religions, Pope John Paul II received a resounding welcome.

But his visit was filled, too, with constant reminders of the divisions between Christians and Muslims that caused the 1975-90 civil war.

Tens of thousands of people turned out for the pope’s first visit to Lebanon. Shouts of ``Baba, Baba!″ _ Arabic for pope _ rang out as his convoy passed through Muslim areas.

Beirut looked a little like a city under siege. Mindful of its history of violence, the Lebanese government mounted a massive security effort to protect the pope _ 20,000 well-armed police and soldiers, many in tanks and armored vehicles.

But the show of force gave way to joyous celebrations as the glass-enclosed popemobile drove through the capital. The head of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, accompanied John Paul on his 40-minute tour.

At Lebanon’s presidential palace, the pope in his skull cap was surrounded at one point by the spiritual leaders of the Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim and Druse communities _ all wearing white turbans.

People came from as far as the Israeli-occupied border enclave in south Lebanon to see the pope. Thousands of Christian students in white pope T-shirts and caps lined his route. Nuns sang hymns and national songs.

But there were also veiled Muslim women who watched _ and waved _ as the motorcade passed.

``We consider the pope’s visit historic,″ said Haidar Malik, who led a group of 250 Shiite boys and girls. He said he hoped the pope would condemn the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and ``concentrate on Muslim-Christian coexistence.″

Still, there were overt signs of the animosity that remains among the 18 religious sects that make up Lebanon’s 3.2 million people.

One man held a poster showing Christian militia leader Samir Geagea, his face emblazoned on a cross. Geagea has been sentenced to life for killing rivals. Muslims hate him, but many Christians feel he should be freed since he is the only leader singled out for punishment for actions in the civil war.

While the pope is stressing religious tolerance, his mission is also intended to give heart to Lebanon’s estimated 1.4 million Christians, most of them Catholics.

Doves were released into the air as the pope’s motorcade passed into the Christian sector past shattered buildings along the Green Line that once divided Beirut.

``We have been waiting to see His Holiness,″ said Juliana Hanna, a 23-year-old Christian university student. ``The earth that he steps on becomes sacred. The gates of hell shatter.″

``Inshallah (God willing), it brings us barakah (blessing),″ said Antoine Tannouri, a 26-year-old hospital employee.

The pope also was treated to some Lebanese hospitality. Although he does not turn 77 until May 18, he was given an early party at the presidential palace complete with the singing of ``Sana hilwa, ya gamil,″ the Arabic version of ``Happy Birthday.″

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