BEIRUT (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon on Friday to urge peace at a time of great turmoil in the Middle East, saying the import of weapons to Syria during the country’s civil war is a ‘‘grave sin.’’
The three-day visit comes at a time of turmoil in the region — the civil war in neighboring Syria and in the aftermath of a mob attack that killed several Americans in Libya, including the U.S. ambassador.
The pontiff was welcomed by top leaders including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders. Cannons fired a 21-shots salute for the pope.
The pope told reporters on the plane that imports of weapons to Syria is a ‘‘grave sin.’’
Syria’s rebels have appealed for weapons shipments to help them fight the regime.
The visit brings the pope to the nation with the largest percentage of Christians in the Mideast — nearly 40 percent of Lebanon’s 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.
Lebanese authorities are enacting stringent security measures, suspending weapons permits except for politicians’ bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and the northern Christian areas.
Army and police patrols were stationed along the airport road, which was decorated with Lebanese and Vatican flags as well as posters of the pope and ‘‘welcome’’ signs in different languages.
Benedict told reporters on the plane that he was not afraid to visit Lebanon. He also described the Arab Spring that has already removed four long-serving dictators as ‘‘positive.’’
‘‘It is the desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity,’’ the pope said. ‘‘He warned against the risk that the push for more freedom could end intolerance for other religions.
The pope said he never considered canceling the trip for security reasons, adding that ‘‘no one ever advised (me) to renounce this trip and personally, I have never considered this.’’
The pope denounced religious fundamentalism calling it ‘‘a falsification of religion’’
Benedict, the third pope to visit Lebanon after Paul VI in 1964 and John Paul II in 1997, will be addressing concerns by the region’s bishops over the plight of Christians in the Middle East. War, political instability and economic hardships have driven thousands from their traditional communities, dating to early Christianity in the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere.
‘‘Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region,’’ he said upon arrival.
The Vatican initially stressed Benedict’s push for inter-faith dialogue in the wake of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death in a mob attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, earlier this week. But on Thursday the Holy See toughened its response, firmly condemning the attack and saying nothing can justify such acts of terrorism or violence.
The papal visit comes amid fears that Syria’s conflict might spill over to Lebanon. Clashes in Lebanon between Syrian groups over the past months have claimed the lives of more than two dozen people and left scores wounded.
The Christian community in Lebanon is divided between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Among Assad’s supporters is former Lebanese prime minister and army commander Michel Aoun, a strong ally of the militant Hezbollah group. Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the pontiff’s visit, describing it as ‘‘extraordinary and historic.’’