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from issue no. 04/05 - 2011

Interview with the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites

A message of coexistence from Lebanon

The dialogue with Islam, a new confrontation with the Christian politicians, the need for relations with Hezbollah, the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: an interview with His Beatitude Béchara Raï, the new Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites

Interview with Béchara Raï by Davide Malacaria

On 15 March the Maronite bishops, meeting in Bkerké (near Beirut), the seat of the Patriarchate, elected Béchara Raï, Bishop of Jbeil, Byblos of the Maronites, as the new Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites. His Beatitude Béchara Boutros Raï, 71, ordained priest in 1967 and bishop in 1986, knows Rome and the Vatican well, as he studied here at the Pontifical Maronite College, and for years, as a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, was the head of Vatican Radio’s Arabic program. His Beatitude Béchara Raï succeeds Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, who resigned last February, aged ninety. On 14 April, receiving the new patriarch in audience, Pope Benedict XVI granted the Ecclesiastica communio.

Several years ago in Lebanon, a country crucial to the stability of the Middle East, the feast of the Annunciation was declared a national holiday, to the joy of Christians, of course, and of the Muslims who revere Mary as the mother of the prophet Jesus. A holiday born out of the coexistence between Christians and Muslims that, despite the shifting and sometimes painful events of history, has been the characteristic of this country. Béchara in Arabic means “Annunciation.” A good omen.


Béchara Raï immediately after his election as Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, 15 March 2011 [© STR New/Reuters/Contrasto]

Béchara Raï immediately after his election as Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, 15 March 2011 [© STR New/Reuters/Contrasto]

What did you think at the time of your election?

BÉCHARA RAÏ: During the Synod, the other possible candidates for the patriarchate, at a certain moment took a step backwards so as to arrive at a unanimous election. It was then that the motto of my mandate dawned on me, “Communion and love”, that I then wrote on my ballot paper. So, during the voting, as my name was being repeated, at a certain moment this motto was also read out. It was a way of saying that I accepted whatever was decided at the Synod, but under the banner, in fact, of communion and love.

Does the Maronite Church, of Eastern Rite, and always in communion with Rome, play a bridging role between Western and Orthodox Christianity?

Because of history the Maronites have fruitful relations with both the Greek and Syriac Churches and with the Holy See. Not least for this reason they have played an important role when unions took place between Eastern-rite Churches and Rome – I mean the Churches known as Uniate. In history and by tradition our role is to be a bridge between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. An ecumenical task very valuable to Christianity.

Still on the subject of relations with the Orthodox Church, Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in his speech to the Synod for the Eastern Churches that he intended to consult the patriarchs of the East to seek views on a possible reform of the Petrine ministry...

A similar thing already occurred at the time of John Paul II. I was a member of the Commission that was to collect the reactions of the patriarchs and report back to the Holy Father. At that time we gathered the contributions of various Oriental patriarchs and bishops, but then the task remained unfinished.

Among the various proposals received by the Commission were there some that attracted your attention more than others?

Among others, there was the suggestion that the Eastern patriarchs might extend their jurisdiction over the faithful of the diaspora, hence beyond the territory traditionally called patriarchal territory. This proposal, unfortunately, was not accepted. I remember that it was spoken of in 2000 at a conference for the tenth anniversary of the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, and, on that occasion, the Vatican Secretary of State, speaking on behalf of the Pope, explained it was not possible to extend the jurisdiction of the patriarchs for two reasons. The first is the principle of territoriality: by tradition patriarchal territory is geographically limited to the East, nor can the principle of territoriality become the principle of subjectivity. The second reason, we were told, is that patriarchy is an ecclesiastic institution and, as such, may also disappear, while the episcopate and the papacy are, on the contrary, divine institutions and cannot lapse. Since the pope is the bishop of all Catholics, and since there are local bishops who have pastoral jurisdictional power over the faithful of the Eastern diaspora also, there is no need to extend the jurisdiction of the patriarch. That, in a nutshell, is the answer that was given.

How important is the relationship between the Patriarchate of Antioch of the Maronites and the faithful of the diaspora spread around the world?

It is important for the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites to look after those faithful also. It is a task already performed by the various Maronite dioceses around the world; and elsewhere, instead, organized communities provide that care, that is, Maronite parishes dependent on the local ordinary, who is Latin, then there are communities without priests. So it’s our job to provide at pastoral level: to send priests and religious, and where there are organized communities, look after the dioceses. But the link between the emigrants and the homeland is also maintained at the level of Church and civil society through the many organizations that keep those relationships vital. An important aspect of this bond is the maintaining of Lebanese citizenship by descendants of Maronite families. It is important because, in a political system like that of Lebanon, based on demography, it enables Christians to keep their numbers unchanged and, consequently, their political weight. Keep in mind that our political system is based on equal participation of Christians and Muslims in the management of public affairs, because the population is half Christian and half Muslim; if the numbers were to change greatly, that balance would also change. But the link with our emigrants is important also because for Maronites Lebanon represents their spiritual home, their traditions, their history. Moreover, this link allows migrants to financially support the families left at home and also the Lebanese “cause”. Finally, the diaspora can do much in terms of development and social projects.

Benedict XVI receiving His Beatitude Béchara Raï in audience, 14 April, 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI receiving His Beatitude Béchara Raï in audience, 14 April, 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

After your election you arranged to meet the four most important leaders of the Christian political parties in Lebanon ...

In Lebanon there is now a great divide between what is called the “Bloc of 14 March”, which sees Christian parties allied with the Sunni Muslims (who have relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States), and the “Bloc of 8 March”, which sees other Christians allied with the Shiites and Hezbollah, who, in turn, have relations with Iran and Syria. This creates tension because there is great conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. This has created distances even among the Christians, so much so that Christian leaders couldn’t manage to meet. So I organized this meeting at the Patriarchate in the hope of encouraging a thaw in relations among Christians and, consequently, also in the country. And that’s what happened. The various Christian leaders spoke about their different political options and, while reiterating their positions, came to the conclusion that their political views are complementary and not conflicting. The multiplicity of policy options, rather than causing clashes, can instead be an asset and a guarantee of democracy. Better understanding occurred there, which has created a relaxing at the public level. Now that the ice is broken meetings will continue among Christian politicians, but more expanded, to broaden the base of dialogue. In addition to that meeting, a summit was held at the Patriarchate between the different religious leaders, Muslims and Christians, which was followed by a joint declaration on the principles and foundations of the nation in which all the Lebanese, despite their religion, recognize themselves and the fact that politics, as such, must be left to politicians. I believe all this can give new impetus to the unity of the country. Finally, I hope that soon meetings can be organized between Muslim and Christian politicians, at which to debate the more urgent issues in the social and political life of the country.

So the problem is not so much to create a single political party of Christians as to seek agreement among the parties.

Lebanon is a pluralistic and democratic country, so diversity of opinions and views is welcome. But there are two things that unite us: the foundations of the nation and shared goals. Lebanon is based on some political principles that, since the birth of the State, have been an unfailing constant: that Lebanon is a democratic, parliamentary country, based on the coexistence between Muslims and Christians, on human rights, on freedom, on the national agreement that sees Christians and Muslims participate in egalitarian fashion in managing public affairs. These are the foundations of our country, indispensable to the nature of our nation, because in Lebanon, given the historic presence of Christians and Muslims, there are two different traditions, two different cultures and so on. As for shared goals, we have: how to preserve Lebanon as a State entity, how to maintain its identity and how to act for the common good and, in particular with regard to Christians, how to preserve their presence in our country. To preserve the fundamental principles of our State and to achieve these goals is not a matter of unifying the various policy options, on the contrary. It is said that “all roads lead to Rome”: we welcome diversity of opinion, of political choices, of alliances because there is no political faction that can claim to be the “true” one, they all have an element of truth. Our task is to foster this constructive and non-confrontational approach.

What stance will the patriarch take with Hezbollah?

In the past there was a committee on which the Patriarchate and Hezbollah discussed the country’s problems, but that useful debate broke off. When, after my election, a delegation came from Hezbollah to pay homage to the new patriarch, I told them that the dialogue should be resumed, particularly through the restoration of that committee, because we can’t let it drop into nothing. Conflicts between men, between groups, arise out of misunderstandings or prejudices. It’s not that we have to discuss all policy choices, but we can try to clear up many points. In the past there was the problem of the nature of the Hezbollah party because, in particular, there were those who did not accept that it should possess weapons. Today, however, that debate has fallen through, because sterile. Now there is talk of common defense strategy, that is of how Lebanon should organize the possession and use of weapons. It is unacceptable that Hezbollah can use weapons when it wants, can declare war or negotiate peace with Israel without any reference to the government of the country. So there is discussion of a defense strategy involving together the State, Hezbollah, the regular army, the Hezbollah militias and so on. We haven’t yet achieved clarification on the point, but the concept has been accepted somewhat by all. In contrast, however, the argument that Hezbollah should hand over its weapons has been rejected one hundred percent. It’s a demand that cannot be accepted and that, among other things, makes relations with Hezbollah arduous. We have to debate, not least to get assurance that Hezbollah won’t use weapons within the country to deal with its political opponents, or declare war on Israel without reference to the legitimate power in Lebanon. A State within a State is unacceptable. These are issues that we summarize in the phrase “common defense strategy”.

You have repeatedly spoken of the importance of coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon...

Coexistence in our country was endorsed by the National Pact of 1943, when Muslims and Christians expressed two negatives: no to the East and no to the West. It means that the Lebanese Muslims cannot work for a process of integration with Syria, or with any other Arab country with an Islamic regime, nor Christians with the West and, particularly, with France. At the same time Muslims renounced any aim to establish an Islamic theocracy, while Christians, in turn, renounced any Western-style secularism. So a State was established in Lebanon that is a middle ground between Eastern theocracy and secularized Western regimes. It is a civilian country that respects the religious dimension of all citizens and no theocratic system, or state religion can be imposed. Coexistence between Christians and Muslims is established by the Constitution, which states, in Article 9, that Lebanon is a great tribute to God, respects all religions, recognizes their status, guarantees freedom of worship and religious practice to all. The Lebanese State does not legislate on matters of religion, of marriage or otherwise, as instead happens in the West where laws in conflict with natural law are passed: that on marriages between persons of the same sex. In these matters the different religious communities have their own legislative autonomy.

Do you consider Lebanon to be a positive example of coexistence also at the international level?

Certainly. We see that in the West religion is set aside, and that Islam cannot accept. On the other hand we see that political systems in which religion is essential have been established in the Eastern world, but which are closed. And that is true both of Muslim countries and Israel. In Lebanon, however, there is a democratic, pluralist state that respects the religious dimension of all citizens and their human rights. It is the beauty of our country, which made John Paul II say that more than a country Lebanon is a message and an example, a positive example for the East as against regimes based on religion, and for the West as against political systems shaped by secularization.

Supporters of Hezbollah demonstrating in favor of popular uprisings against the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, in Beirut, 19 March 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Supporters of Hezbollah demonstrating in favor of popular uprisings against the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, in Beirut, 19 March 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

What do you think of the movements of rebellion that are spreading in the Arab countries and that, among other things, are affecting Syria, which has great importance for Lebanon?

The problem is complex. Syria is ruled by an Alawite minority, while the vast majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The Sunnis, who are in no way fundamentalist, ruled the country before the arrival of the Assads and are now calling for reforms... In Egypt, however, there are the Muslim Brotherhood who may give a fundamentalist shape to the new political direction. One has to remember that Islam is torn by several conflicts: between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere, between Alawite and Sunni Muslims in Syria and other countries. I do not know where all this will lead, but it’s worrying: there’s the danger that a fundamentalist Islamic regime or a dictatorship worse than the previous get established in some of these States, or that the regions get partitioned into small denominational States, according to what some international observers call a “project for a new Middle East”. The future is uncertain. We hope that these countries find peace in respect of the human rights of peoples, because we know that those in upheaval are dictatorial regimes, ruled by a closed politico-religious system and a single party. These are countries with great resources, but where the wealth is not distributed and where the people are very poor. All these revolts, these mass demonstrations have been conducted, generally, without weapons, with Facebook: these are people who are claiming their rights and freedom. Some countries have made reforms, others have not. Where no positive response has come to the expectations of the people, the situation is getting worse and this worries me ever more, because this crisis is having a very negative impact on Christian communities, as occurred in Iraq, because unfortunately those who suffer the consequences of certain situations are the Christians. We are very concerned for Lebanon also, which lies in this area and suffers from all these crises. We call upon the international community to help these people.

The last question is about peace between Israel and Palestine...

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of all the crises and all the problems of the Middle East. It is the “original sin”, the matrix that feeds all the crises in our region. Unfortunately, the international community is not acting as it should: the resolutions of the Security Council should be applied, beginning with one that requires the return of the refugees to their own land. The UN was created to foster peace in the world and yet does nothing, because, unfortunately, it’s held hostage by the great powers. The Palestinians must have their state and the refugees must be enabled to return to their land. Lebanon is home to half a million refugees out of a total of four million inhabitants, an exorbitant number... A presence which constitutes a security problem, given that they have weapons and use them without any check, but it is also a social and political drama. The conflicts that have plagued Lebanon from 1975 up to the present have been caused by the presence of these refugees, who are pressing to return to their lands. If this conflict were resolved, Hezbollah also would lose its raison d’etre... The fact is that the great powers play with the fate of nations. Just look at what happened in Iraq, where there was an intervention, it was said, to establish democracy and, in a decade, more people have been killed than Saddam Hussein ever killed...

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