LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Pope Benedict XVI said Mass in Lebanon today in his first visit to the Middle East since the Arab Spring. It's a region where Christian numbers are dwindling, and where many Christians fear Islamists will gain power now that secular dictators have fallen.
NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Beirut.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The pope spent much of his time here in Lebanon meeting church leaders from around the Middle East. He was welcomed by Muslim leaders, too. The pope urged Christians and Muslims to join together in an effort to end the violence in the region, particularly in neighboring Syria.
GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
MCEVERS: At this ceremony in northern Lebanon, the pope told young Syrians he admired their courage. The Christian youth leaders told the pope they worry about the rise of fundamentalism in the region.
POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Speaking after he delivered this prayer in French, the pope urged Christians to remain here in the Middle East. His comments come amid what some see as an exodus of Christians from the region. The Catholic Church says Christians in the Middle East have dropped from about 20 percent of the total population to 5 percent.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the resulting violence, including a deadly attack on a Christian church in 2010. In Egypt, Christians came under attack after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and many are wary of the new Islamist government. And in Syria, the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al Assad and the civil conflict that has followed has Christians worried that any new government might not protect minorities.
This young Syrian Christian, who didn't want to give his name, said it might be difficult for Syrian Christians to remain in their homes, especially in areas where those homes are coming under attack by regime troops or attack by rebel forces. But he agrees with the pope that Christians should not give up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is our country, this is our land. Our grandfathers stayed here through thousands of years. Absolutely we won't give up and we won't leave our land and our country.
MCEVERS: The pope also spoke of religious tolerance, a message that was particularly resonant these days, as protests have swept the region this past week over an anti-Muslim film made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian who lives in the U.S.
But this is the same pope who in 2006 quoted a 14th century criticism of Prophet Muhammad and who sparked similar protests then.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)
MCEVERS: In northern Lebanon this weekend, demonstrators turned violent and burned a KFC and a Hardees, angry at the U.S. for allowing the anti-Muslim film to be made. Then they turned their anger on the pope. No more insults to Islam, they shouted. We don't want the pope.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.