VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis used a first public audience in six months Wednesday to warn that Lebanon faces "extreme danger that threatens the very existence of the country" following last month's massive explosion.
The leader of the Catholic Church focused on the disaster-hit country almost a month after the huge blast in the Beirut harbor ripped through the city, killing more than 180 people and wounding at least 6,500.
"Lebanon cannot be abandoned to its solitude," the Pope said at the limited audience with the public, meetings that had been suspended due to the coronavirus crisis.
"A month after the tragedy... my thoughts are still with dear Lebanon and its particularly hard-pressed population," Francis said, holding a Lebanese flag brought to the audience by a young priest.
He called for a universal day of prayer and fasting on Friday, saying that he would send the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to Lebanon on the day.
"Faced with the repeated tragedies that each of the inhabitants of this land knows, we realize the extreme danger that threatens the very existence of this country," he said.
The Pontiff held his first audience in a closed courtyard of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, with a maximum of 500 faithful.
Jorge Bergoglio -- Francis' birth name -- last hosted an audience on February 26, as the grip of Covid-19 closed around Italy.
Back then the Argentinian Pope, who is fond of direct contact, shook hands with dozens of faithful and hugged a few children massed in the front row of the audience of some 12,000 people.
But there were no hugs on Wednesday, with Francis simply exchanging a few words with those present, all wearing face masks.
There was a rush to meet the Pope by attendees as he entered the courtyard.
Always without a facemask, the Pope kept his distance before succumbing slightly by the end of the ceremony, when he blessed three married couples, shook hands with some cardinals and took a Lebanese priest by the arm.
So far, the coronavirus has killed more than 35,000 people in Italy since it was first detected, according to the latest official statistics.
"After all these months, we are resuming our face-to-face and not screen-to-screen meetings," a smiling pope told the audience.
"It's beautiful!" he laughed.
"The current epidemic has demonstrated our interdependence, we are all linked," the pontiff continued, saying "this is why we must emerge better from the crisis."
"We must do it together, not alone," he said.
'MESSAGE OF FREEDOM'
Turning to Lebanon -- a country Francis called "a message of freedom and an example of pluralism in both the East and the West" -- he called on religious and political leaders to work together in its reconstruction.
"We cannot allow this heritage to be lost," Francis said.
The Pope also pressed the international community to help "Lebanon emerge from a serious crisis without being involved in regional tensions."
Visibly moved by the Pope's message, Maronite priest George Breidi, a student at a Catholic university in Rome thanked the pontiff for his support.
The Maronite clergyman, whose Eastern Catholic Church is based in Beirut, also thanked the Pope for "saying that we cannot continue to live like this in Lebanon".