Monday, August 20, 2012

Vatican: Pope to visit Lebanon despite Syria conflict

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's trip to Lebanon next month will go forward as planned, the Vatican said on Monday, even as fighting rages in neighboring Syria.

Benedict's visit to Lebanon is scheduled for September 14-16. But escalating violence in Syria and sectarian tensions in Lebanon prompted speculation last week that the pontiff might be forced to postpone the trip.

"The preparations for the visit are going ahead without any uncertainty on the part of the Vatican," Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, told reporters.

Lombardi said one of the pope's specially designed cars - a so-called popemobile equipped with bullet-proof glass - was already on its way to Beirut.

Lebanon will be the 85-year-old pope's second foreign visit this year after a trip to Mexico and Cuba in March.

Pope Benedict is scheduled to meet President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati on September 15, and hold an open-air mass at the Beirut City Centre Waterfront on the following day.

The conflict in Syria has raised fears that violence might spill across the region. Gulf Arab states told their citizens last week to leave Lebanon, where Shi'ite gunmen kidnapped more than 20 people in retaliation for the capture of one of their kinsmen in Syria.

During his Easter service four months ago, Pope Benedict backed a Syrian peace plan that has since failed. United Nations military observers on Monday left Damascus as fighting continued between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels.

Battling a 17-month-old uprising against his rule, Assad has used fighter jets and helicopter gunships to pound rebel strongholds. Insurgents have stepped up their attacks, hitting tanks, military convoys and security buildings.

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