WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi says Christians in Syria have convivial relations with Muslims and would like to see the spirit continue.
The Christian presence in the Middle East is a presence of dialogue, especially with the Muslim faith, says the new worldwide head of the Maronite Catholics.
Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi says Christians in the Middle East work hand-in-hand with Muslims to resolve all types of issues.
"If the Christians were to leave the Middle East and cease to have this conviviality with Islam, the whole world would have lost a paradigm or an example of conviviality that does not exist in many places in the world," the patriarch said in an interview.
Al-Rahi was in Edmonton May 9-10 as part of a three-week tour of the Maronite dioceses of Mexico, Canada and the United States. He travelled with his vicar general, Archbishop Paul Sayab, who served as his translator for the WCR interview and other official functions.
Al-Rahi, a 71-year-old monk and former bishop of Byblos, is the Maronites' 77th leader.
He entered monastic life as a member of the Mariamite Maronite Order and was ordained in 1967. For the next eight years he was responsible for the translation of Vatican Radio in Arabic. Al-Rahi was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop of Antioch in 1986 and became bishop of Byblos four years later.
Maronites are Eastern Catholics of the Syriac tradition. Their Church has never separated from communion with the pope.
Maronites worship in Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and follow a different liturgical tradition than many other Eastern churches which trace their origin to the Byzantine Empire.
"Lebanon is the venue par excellence where the dialogue between Christianity and Islam is very much alive," Al-Rahi said. "Those are two people or two religions living in a civil state that respect our religions on an equal basis."
Although 59 per cent of Lebanese are Muslims, Christians also have a strong presence. Maronite Catholics are the country's largest Christian group, representing 21 per cent of the total population.
Lebanon's unusual power-sharing system reserves political offices for candidates who hail from the various religious groups, so that the president is always a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.
Edmonton's 90-family Maronite Catholic Parish hosted the patriarch's visit, which included a Mass at St. Joseph's Basilica May 9 followed by banquet for about 400 at the Shaw Conference Centre.
The parish pastor, Msgr. Joseph Salame, said, according to Maronite canon law, the newly-elected patriarch should visit all the parishes and dioceses in Lebanon and outside of Lebanon.
"So the purpose of his visit is to come and meet with the Maronite Lebanese community and this is part of his pastoral visit," he said.
"His visit is very important. Because of what's going on now in the Middle East with the changes of regimes we are concerned about the future of the Christians in the Middle East."
Salame said many of the Christians who live in Syria are coming to Lebanon because of the war.
Millions of Maronites live all over the world. "Lebanon is a small country of 10,000 square km and it's too small for its people so the people are scattered all over the world," Al-Rahi said.
"They had to leave for economic reasons, violence and war and so on. But also the Lebanese leave Lebanon to get an education, despite the fact we have many universities there."
About a million Maronites live in Lebanon, the spiritual homeland of the Maronites. In Canada, there are about 300,000 with the largest numbers being in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
"The objective (of the visit) is to get to know the situation of our people in this very hospitable country," Al-Rahi said.
"Secondly, we would like to encourage them to do their utmost to cultivate the relationships with the people (of Canada) and to contribute to the development of the country culturally, spiritually and socially."
He said his Canadian visit was not only to the Maronites but also to other Christians, to Muslims and to Lebanese people in general.
Christians, including the Maronites, have been in Lebanon and in the Middle East for 2,000 years and have played a vital role in the development of those countries, the patriarch said.
"They brought modernity to those countries. They fostered human rights and freedom and democracy; they are the principal agents who brought about these developments socially, spiritually and culturally and in every way," he said through his translator.
"The greatest challenge (for Christians in the Middle East) right now is to keep realizing this vocation that they have of influencing society culturally, socially, economically and in every way."
The patriarch denied that Maronite Catholics face persecution anywhere in the Middle East
"There is no such a thing as persecution as such," he said. "Of course, there are sometimes attacks by (Islamic) fundamentalists or extremists. But the Christians and the Maronites living in those countries don't face persecution as such."
Al-Rahi stressed the majority of Muslims are moderate. "The people who make the news are the fundamentalists and they really make noise but it's a very small minority."
The Maronite Catholic Church has three dioceses in war-torn Syria, including one in Damascus and another in Aleppo.
The patriarch said there is "conviviality" between Christians and Muslims in Syria. "They are living together; they are working together but the problem is the violence is harming everybody, not only Christians."
Christians in Syria, including Maronites, "try to be on good terms with the authority as such," Al-Rahi said.
"They are not with a regime or against a regime. They are accepted because they don't get involved in politics. They try to serve the country there without getting involved in the political (process).
"Because Christians respect the civil authority, the civil authority accepts the Christians and they don't usually have problems with the authorities."
Do Syrian Christians have problems with the opposition because of their posture?
"We have no problems with anybody," Al-Rahi said. "What we wish to see is that (the Syrian) people would reach their aspirations and dreams.
"We are against violence, whether it's coming from the system or the regime or is coming from the opposition. We are for dialogue and peaceful solutions."
The patriarch, however, made clear he does not support foreign intervention in Syria.
"Their internal problems are their own concern. We people from outside should not get involved in the internal problems of another people."