Interview: Maronite Patriarch Rai of Antioch
Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai is the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch – the head of the Maronite Church, which is in full communion with the pope and has more than 3 million faithful around the world
Aid to the Church in Need's Oliver Maksan asked him about his concerns and hopes for Christians in Lebanon.
Your Beatitude, do you believe that the civil war in Syria will spread to Lebanon and lead to religious battles between Sunnis and Shiites? This year there has already been fighting between both religious groups.
Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai: Certainly. The civil war in Syria between the Sunni majority and the Alawi minority has already begun to have an impact on the Sunnis and Alawites in north Lebanon, in Tripoli and Akkar. In addition, the Lebanese are again split into supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of the opposition. Thirdly, the continuing political conflict between the Sunnis of the alliance of 14 March and the Shiites of the alliance of 8 March will become more pronounced due to the events in Syria.
What can Christians in Lebanon do in order to prevent new tensions in their homeland?
Patriarch Rai: The Christians of Lebanon must be more united again and once again meet their responsibilities. After all, based on their culture and mental attitude they always strive for peace, progress and the values of modernity. They love peace and fight for justice. They are willing to live together and cooperate with Muslims, without prejudices and ulterior motives.
But doesn't the Lebanese constitution make this coexistence more difficult? The state and its offices are divided along the lines of the religious groups. Critics are of the opinion that the divisions between the religions will thus be entrenched over the long term.
Patriarch Rai: Muslims and Christians generally live in mixed areas. The Lebanon, in contrast to all of the other countries of the region, separates religion and the state. It thus respects God as well as all religions and confessions. The state does not interfere in matters which involve divine law. It recognises the legislative and jurisdictional autonomy of all religions as far as the questions of religion and marriage with its civil ramifications are concerned. This is referred to as ‘Statut Personnel’. It is an aspect of denominationalism. The other aspect is the equal participation of Christians and Muslims in terms of political power and public administration. In order to understand this agreement, which is also referred to as ‘Pacte National’, one must remember that all of the Arab countries – and even Israel – were created on the basis of an Islamic or Jewish theocracy. Lebanon is a purely civilian state. It does not have a state religion, and no religious book is the source of its legislation. What is involved is a communal life which organises the Christians, who naturally strive for laicism, and the Muslims, who strive for theocracy.
The Holy Father will visit Lebanon next month in order to publish the Apostolic Letter following the 2010 Synod in the Middle East. What do you expect will be the outcome?
Patriarch Rai: The Apostolic Letter will certainly sketch a pastoral plan for the Catholic church in the Middle East. A good part will be concerned with the communion between the churches, Islam and the other religions. Another part will be a procedural instruction for good Christian witness, both at the level of daily life, at the level of the services made available by the church as well as at the level of the contribution made by Christians to development in their respective countries. Moreover, this Apostolic Letter will inspire hope and encourage the peoples of the Middle East to intensify their unity and efforts at living together and to play their role within the Arab and international community.
Currently the situation for Christians in the Middle East is not improving. A total of 100,000 Copts have purportedly left Egypt since the revolution. In Syria Sunni extremists threaten the Christians. Will Islamism put an end to the presence of Christians in the Middle East?
Patriarch Rai: Absolutely not. Christians have been deeply rooted in the countries of the Middle East for 2,000 years, since the times of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles. They ingrained the values of the gospel into the local cultures. They maintain their various facilities and have an active presence in their respective countries. Meanwhile a life of peace and tranquillity makes it possible for them to avoid emigration and remain active. The Muslims themselves recognise the importance of the presence of Christians due to their intellectual, moral and vocational qualities. Also their respect for the law, their loyalty to the country and government authorities, without interfering in policy where the particular regime is theocratic, is also respected.
How are the Maronites faring in Syria? Are they affected by the fighting?
Patriarch Rai: The Maronites in Syria are experiencing the same as all their other Christian and Muslim fellow citizens. No one is spared from the civil war and the violence. We have three dioceses in Syria: Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. There are no direct attacks on Maronites, because they are respected and do not interfere in politics.