Pope Benedict XVI appealed Saturday for religious freedom in West Asia, calling it fundamental for stability in a region bloodied by sectarian strife.

Pope Benedict spoke on the second day of his visit to Lebanon, a country with the largest percentage of Christians in West Asia. He arrived amid a wave of violent demonstrations over an anti-Islam film across the Muslim world.

“Let us not forget that religious freedom is a fundamental right from which many other rights stem,” he said, speaking in French to government officials, foreign diplomats and religious leaders at the President palace in Mount Lebanon in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Huge welcome

Enthusiastic crowds lined the streets and cheered along the 30-km motorcade route to the palace as Pope Benedict went by in the bullet-proof glass popemobile. Soldiers in horseback rode ahead of the car.

As the Pope arrived in the presidential compound, officials released about 20 white doves.

Just hours after the Pope arrived on Friday, violence erupted in northern Lebanon over the film Innocence of Muslims. According to Lebanese security officials, a crowd angry over the film set fire to a KFC and a Hardee’s restaurant in the port city of Tripoli85 km north of Beirut, sparking clashes with police. Police then opened fire, killing one of the attackers, the officials said.

At least 25 people were wounded in the melee, including 18 police who were hit with stones and glass. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.

Lebanese authorities tightened security for the Pope, suspending weapons permits except for politicians’ bodyguards and confining the visit to central Lebanon and northern Christian areas. In the evening, Pope Benedict will address thousands of youths from across West Asia.

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