VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Thursday amid continued violence in the Muslim world over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.
The two met for about 20 minutes in private in Benedict’s library before being joined by Siniora’s 12-member delegation, which included his wife and several Lebanese ministers.
Muslims make up at least 60 percent of Lebanon’s estimated 3.5 million people, with the remainder Christian. The Maronite Catholic Church, which numbers about 900,000, is the largest Christian group and is highly influential in the country’s politics.
Lebanon’s president must be a member of the Maronite church, while the prime minister, Siniora, is a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite, a division that reflects the country’s sectarian makeup.
The pope has singled out Lebanon in some recent speeches, including his Christmas Day message in which he said that signs of hope in Lebanon, as well as in Iraq and the Holy Land, needed to be “confirmed by actions inspired by fairness and wisdom.”
Siniora and the pope spoke in English, although Benedict spoke French, German and English to other members of the delegation. At the start of their meeting, they discussed the American University of Beirut, from which Siniora graduated.
The meeting came amid continued violence in the Muslim world over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Some of the violence in Lebanon has targeted Christian neighborhoods.
The Vatican has said such forms of criticism represent an “unacceptable provocation,” and that the right to freedom of expression “cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.”
Benedict raised the issue of the drawings in his meeting last week with the U.S. first lady Laura Bush. Siniora gave the pope a nativity scene painted on wood dating from 1878. The pope gave the prime minister a rosary. “It’s a great souvenir,” Siniora said.