Maronite patriarch says Christians still important to Middle East during visit to Archdiocese of Cincinnati
Christians continue to play an important cultural and spiritual role in the countries of the Middle East and the exodus of so many refugees fueled by the plagues of war and terrorism needs to be reversed for the sake of the region’s future.
That was the heart of the message of His Beatitude Mar Bechara Peter Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, who spoke July 1 at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church for an event called “One Church of Mercy.” The event, which was to end that evening with a special liturgy and dinner, was a joint effort of Latin and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches in Cincinnati, designed to shine a spotlight on the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
“The countries of the Middle East, with the exception of Lebanon, have been governed by authoritarian political regimes,” Cardinal Rai told an audience of about 200 lay, clerical and religious attendees. “For all of them, Islam is the religion of the state, except for Syria, where the constitution requires only that the head of state has to be Muslim. “
The Cardinal explained that Islamist movements and terrorist organizations instead replaced the well-intentioned “so-called Arab Spring,” which gave hope to many that democratic governments could evolve.
The resulting wars compounded on-going struggles in the region, he explained, and “most of the Christians in Iraq and Syria were either killed or displaced… despite the fact that Christians never took sides in the international, military ethnic or racial conflicts.’
The Cardinal also discussed prospects for the region and highly recommended that nations in the region adopt the model of his native Lebanon, despite its many difficulties – they have not been able to elect a president for three years – where the state is meant to be separate from religion, “but not separate God from the state.”
In his conclusion, he focused on the problem of refugees. “A small country like Lebanon, which a population of four million inhabitants, has had to shelter over one million and a half displaced Syrians and this is over and above the half million Palestinian refugees (displaced by the on-going conflict in Israel.)”
He called this a real threat to the security and stability of the country, “Economically, Socially, politically and educationally.” He urged the international community to work to end the armed conflicts plaguing the region and find ways to keep the refugees in their home countries. “We need them,” he said.
The Cardinal’s comments followed a morning prayer service at the parish church and a discussion of various Rites of the Catholic Church offered by Father George Hajj, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Maronite Church; Father Siju Azhakath, Director of St. Cavara Syro-Malabar Catholic Mission, Father Todd Grogan of Annunciation and Kirsten Evans, Executive Director of In Defense of Christians, a religious freedom advocacy group.
Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati welcomed the Cardinal and conference participants noting that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedoms are restricted. He also cited the observance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom focuses on the cause of religious liberty in the U.S. and around the world.