Religious freedom in the Middle East – Press conference by Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon at UN Headquarters

Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



In a press conference at Headquarters this morning, the newly elected Maronite Patriarch, His Beatitude Bechara Peter Rai, offered a message of “communion and love” and heralded the 2,000 years of contribution by the Christian community in the Middle East.

Accompanied by Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, and Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayah, Vicar General of the Maronite Church who assisted with translation, Patriarch Rai said that the two words — “communion and love” — summarized the whole of Christian life, both lived individually and socially.

It was in that spirit, he said, that he had made visits to Lebanon, to all the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as houses of worship of all denominations of Muslims.  The various religious and political communities gathered to welcome him, asking for reconciliation of political stances, and voicing concerns regarding their social, development and human needs.

He also spoke of two recent summits in Turkey and in Beirut, coordinated by all the Lebanese religious communities, and attended by Christian and Muslim leaders.  On both occasions, a statement based on constitutional principles and national guidelines requested all political leaders and those in public service to follow those guidelines in the governing of their citizens.

He said he then came to the United States where, in his visits to parishes across the country, he thanked the Lebanese communities for their faithfulness to their Church, as well as their contribution to the United States and the development of this country.  “I also thanked them for showing the beautiful and true face of Lebanon to the American society,” he stated.

It was important to remember, Patriarch Rai emphasized, that Christian citizens had been in that area since the time of Christ and the Apostles.  Their Christian values had contributed to the cultures of those countries and continued to do so.  “This is why their presence is essential” he said, referring to the Christian communities as “pioneers” who strengthened democracy, dialogue, peace, justice and human rights.  He also noted that the Lebanese Christian community was distinguished by the invention of the “National Pact” upon which the State of Lebanon was founded, and which, as a secular State, accorded equal representation to Christians and Muslims.  This, he said, was what made Lebanon different from all other Middle East countries.

“We hope the world will not look upon us simply as numerical minorities but as a branch of the Church throughout the world,” he said.  In his upcoming travels to gatherings of religious leaders, a country visit to Iraq and then his return to Lebanon he would continue to bring his message of “communion and love”.

Patriarch Rai first answered concerns of why the Lebanese delegation was not present at the press conference.  Noting that his visit had been sponsored and arranged by the Holy See, he said there was no deeper meaning or intention behind the Lebanese delegation not being present at the press conference; he had met with them yesterday and would being seeing them later today.

Asked what would be his message at his meeting with Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, he said he would express concerns for peace in the Middle East.  Lebanon was an example of the peace he sought and he wanted it to remain an example of co-existence.  He would share two concerns with the Secretary-General — that of the land that was still occupied by Israel, and that of the Palestine problem.

Speaking of the `Arab Spring’, he emphasised the Church’s support for all the reforms for freedom and human rights, but he adamantly opposed violence and did not want development to come from violence, either from the people or the authorities.  He hoped that recent developments would not lead to civil wars, nor did he want the new governments or authorities to be more dictatorial than previous ones.

Asked about the future of Christians in the Middle East, he noted that for the last 2000 years Christians within that region had impacted the whole of society, with the values of human rights and democracy.  He did not want Christians to be looked upon as minorities, since they represented the whole of international Christendom in that region.  Their presence should be preserved since they were a great asset to the values of democracy.

A reporter asked how His Beatitude would voice his concerns to the Secretary-General, and how he would address the issue of the Palestinians and of the situation of Christians in Palestine.  Patriarch Rai said that it was no secret that since 1948, a crisis of peace existed in the Middle East, but there were internal problems within each country, and that each people had internal strife, including Christians.  In this regard it was important that Christians not be separated from the society at large, although in the past, war and disputes had led to Christians leaving the area.

Christians could not live in peace in that region if there was no peace; thus, the key to peace; and stability in the Middle East was, in his view, the resolution of the Palestinian problem.  This consisted of giving Palestinians a State of their own, applying and implementing United Nations resolution 194 and other relevant resolutions on this matter, including the right of Israel to have peace within secure borders.

A reported asked him to clarify comments he had made about “Hizbullah arms,” as well as the implementation of political reform by President Assad; he said his Church was neither for nor against the Government of Syria.  However, he supported the reforms toward democracy and human rights.  However, he said, with Iraq “before our eyes”, he was concerned about a similar outcome in Syria, with a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, with Christians displaced, and with the possibility of a resulting regime more dictatorial than the one before.

He said that he had a problem with Hizbullah, but the solution lay not just with the Church or Lebanon, but with the international community.  Resolutions of the United Nations regarding the occupied land of Lebanon needed to be applied and implemented; the international community should ensure the application of resolution 194 so that the Palestinians in Lebanon be given the right of return.  He said that he did not link the arms of Hizbullah with the concerns noted.  “If they handed in the arms today, we would be very happy,” he said.

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For information media • not an official record

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