World

To save the Middle East, save Lebanon, pleads Maronite Patriarch

Country is "door to democracy" in midst of ongoing conflicts, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai says

Look to the Lebanese model for solutions to the turmoil in the Middle East, says the head of the Maronite Church.

Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the Lebanon-based Patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites, spoke with Aleteia Monday while on a pastoral visit to the United States.

Some 85,000 Maronite Catholics worship in communities across the United States, according to Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which hosted Cardinal Rai at its headquarters in New York. The Church, which is in union with Rome, has its roots in the 5th century.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai speaks at Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai speaks at Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York

Speaking on the same day as two suicide bombings in the Christian Lebanese village of Al Qaa on the border with Syria, which left at least five residents and eight attackers dead, Cardinal Rai said that fundamentalist Islam is a threat to Muslims and Christians alike. The Islamic State group is “not persecuting Christians only; it’s persecuting anyone who doesn’t agree with them, be they Muslims, be they Yazidis, whoever. It’s not a question of Christian-Muslim.”

With the bloody Syrian civil war now in its fifth year, and ongoing efforts to protect Christian minorities from the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, the patriarch made a strong appeal that the United States support Lebanon, which offers one of the only models that can foster peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.

“Christians and Muslims in Lebanon decided together to live in a state where they are equal,” the patriarch said in Arabic, interpreted by his vicar general, Archbishop Paul Sayah. Cardinal Rai explained that Lebanon’s constitution, which stipulates that the state is secular, and its 1943 National Pact, which requires the president be Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament to be a Shiite Muslim, the prime minister be Sunni Muslim, and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister to be Greek Orthodox, ensure that Muslims and Christians feel secure.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, more than 40% of Lebanon’s population is Christian. The 54% that is Muslim is pretty equally divided between Sunni and Shia.

The cardinal said he hopes that this system might be adopted by other countries in the Middle East, but Lebanon’s own way of life is being threatened by the upheavals in the region. The country, with its population of four million, has struggled to absorb between 1.5 million and 2 million refugees, mostly from Syria, for example.

“What will remain of the Lebanese identity, the Lebanese system?” he asked. “The Lebanese are leaving, and Syrians and Iraqis and others are coming.”

Thus, Lebanon needs support from the West, including help to end the Syrian war and repatriate refugees. He urged the United States to “safeguard Lebanon, just to safeguard democracy in the Middle East.”

The world has has already seen the alternative to the “Lebanese model,” he said at a press conference earlier on Monday: “authoritarian political regimes,” most with Islam as the state religion, overthrown during the “Arab Spring” but replaced by “Islamist movements and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Al Nusra and ISIS (Daesh).”

At the same time, he said, a proxy war is being played out in Syria, Iraq and Yemen between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, assisted by “their Eastern and Western allies.”

“This is a quasi-world war,” the 76-year-old patriarch said in the interview. “The big powers should sit together at the table and come up with solutions. In Geneva [where UN-mediated peace talks began earlier this year] you can’t have only two Syrian factions. They’re not making the decisions. They’re not the ones making the war. The war now is made by various factions: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, America, Russia. All of them are implicated. All of them should be in Geneva.”

He charged that these major powers are not working seriously toward a solution because they want to sell arms.

In his own country, the Sunni-Shia conflict has played out politically, and “for that reason Lebanon has been unable to elect a president for the past three years,” he lamented.

He urged a political solution to the conflicts and emphasized the importance of helping refugees return home, not only because their humanity demands it but because the miserable life lived by the masses of refugees and internally displaced persons is fertile ground for recruiting by extremists.

Cardinal Rai also said a solution must be found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said is “at the origin of the Middle Eastern problems.”

“A solution to that problem ought to be found in accordance with the United Nations Resolutions, which would allow the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside an Israeli State, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.”

 

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.