By Benjamin Mann
The leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church says the world must not let the “Arab Spring” turn into a “winter” of civil war and minority oppression.
“The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ sweeping the Middle East holds much promise, yet we must remain vigilant. The Church abhors the use of violence to meet any goal,” said Patriarch Bechara Rai of Antioch, in an Oct. 20 conference at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s U.S. headquarters.
“We do not wish to see happening in these countries what happened in Iraq, where the country now is in the middle of a civil war,” said the leader of 3.2 million Eastern Catholics of the Maronite tradition. “In such a situation, this will not be a ‘spring.’ It will be rather a ‘winter.’”
“With the international community, we look forward to seeing a real ‘spring’ in the Arab countries. But we (want) to voice our concerns, so that we really may reach a spring and not a winter.”
The 71-year-old former monk, who became patriarch in March 2011, addressed observers of the Church in the Middle East at the invitation of New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. His time in New York was part of a pastoral visit to the U.S., where nearly 80,000 Maronites live.
In his remarks, Patriarch Rai stressed the importance of helping Christians remain in their historic Middle Eastern homelands.
“When we’re talking about the Christians, we are not talking about some people who came from outside,” said the patriarch.“Christians were in that part of the world 600 years before Islam, and they impacted society with their values.”
“It is important to point out the role the Christians played in upholding democratic principles, freedoms, and human rights in the Middle East. This is why a Christian presence there should be safeguarded and the role of Christians strengthened.”
The Eastern Catholic leader said Christians in Lebanon “want to see a Middle East renewed in its respect of human rights and dignity, especially for her minorities. We want to see people electing democratic governments and holding them accountable.”
But he worries that the movements and changes now sweeping the region may be “leading to regimes that are even more fundamentalist” than the governments they aim to replace. Some Christians have already begun to leave Egypt, fleeing persecution and a feared Islamist takeover.
In Syria, Lebanon’s neighboring country, some residents fear that the downfall of embattled president Bashar al-Assad could spark an Iraq-like civil war between Muslim sects trying to drive Christians out and seize power.
“Everybody agrees,” Patriarch Rai observed, “that Syria is in need of reform: more freedom, and more rights.” He said that both citizens and authorities in Syria, the home of 53,000 Maronites and many other Christians, must “find the best way to run the country.”
“But what we wish to see is this … being done in a peaceful way, through dialogue.”
The Maronite patriarch is also organizing dialogue to help the Coptic Christians of Egypt – who lost at least 17 members of their community in recent riots that wounded over 300 – and other religious minorities at the center of the “Arab Spring.”
“We are in direct contact with (Coptic Orthodox leader) His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, and we have been discussing the matter also with all the heads of religious communities in the Middle East,” the Catholic patriarch explained.
“We are in the process of preparing a summit for the religious leaders (in) the Middle East, in order to try to promote the atmosphere that exists in Lebanon, where all religious communities live together in freedom and mutual respect.”
The Maronite leader held up Lebanon as a model for peace between Christians and Muslims in the region. The country’s unique power-sharing system requires that the president must always be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Shi’ite Muslim.
Lebanon’s different groups enjoy peace, he said, because the country does not make one religion the law of the land but “respects all religions, and all values of each religion” in its government and laws.
“In Lebanon,” he noted, “each religion has full rights, and each religion respects the others fully.”
Patriarch Rai noted that many non-Christian groups expressed joy when he became the Maronites’ new leader, because they saw him as a figure of national unity.
The patriarch said that during those days in March 2011, he “realized how true is what Blessed John Paul II said about Lebanon” in a 1997 apostolic exhortation.
“He said that Lebanon is more than a country. Lebanon is a message of reconciliation and dialogue and conviviality for both East and West.”