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The visit of the Maronite Patriarch to Syria Feb 9 - 10, 2013

The Patriarch Speech in Syria

 Lebanon Maronite patriarch arrives in Syira: state TV
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai arrived in Damascus to attend the enthronement of Syria's Greek Orthodox leader Yuhanna X Yazigi

(Retrieved from Ahram website on Feb 10, 2013)Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai arrived in Damascus on Saturday to attend the enthronement of Syria's Greek Orthodox leader, Yuhanna X Yazigi, Syrian state television said. The Lebanese National News Agency meanwhile reported that Rai would hold mass at the Maronite cathedral in Damascus later in the evening. The ceremony for the new Greek Orthodox leader is to be held at 8:30 am (0630 GMT) on Sunday at the Church of the Holy Cross in Qassaa, a central neighbourhood of the conflict-hit Syrian capital. Rai's visit to Syria will be the first visit by a Maronite patriarch since independence in 1943, Lebanon's anti-Syrian regime newspaper An-Nahar reported. "The participation of several church leaders is a way to express solidarity between churches while Syria is in crisis, a crisis for Christians in Syria," the daily added. Lebanese President Michel Sleiman conveyed support for the visit. "I support the visit. It is the patriarch's duty to evaluate the needs of Christians and it is not appropriate for the head of state to tell him what he can and cannot do," Sleiman said in a statement. "Not everything is linked with politics. Patriarch Rai, like Patriarch Yazigi, is aware of the needs of Christians and how to act to maintain their roots in this land," he added. Christians represent about five percent of the population in Syria, where rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are locked in a civil war the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people. Rai was elected in March 2011 as the 77th patriarch of Lebanon's Maronites, the country's largest Christian community which makes up about one third of the four-million population and from which the president hails. In January, Rai strongly denounced states that provide money, weapons and other assistance to both the Assad regime and its opponents, saying they would have to answer "crimes before the court of history". Yuhanna X Yazigi was chosen as the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East on December 17, replacing Ignatius IV Hazim who died earlier in the same month. Many of Syria's Christians have remained neutral in the country's conflict. Others have taken Assad's side, for fear of the rise of Islamism.

Maronite patriarch prays for peace in Damascus

Patriarch Beshara Rai’s visit to Syria comes at time when Christians in region feel under threat from rise of political Islam.

Retrieved from Middle East Online on Feb 10, 2013

DAMASCUS - Snipers deployed on the rooftops around Holy Cross church in the heart of Damascus on Sunday as dignitaries from Middle East churches arrived for the enthronement of Greek Orthodox leader Yuhanna X Yazigi.

Guests bearing official invitations were whisked through metal detectors at the door, but their chauffeurs were prohibited from parking, and throngs of devotees had to watch the liturgy on a giant screen outside.

Only Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, on a historic visit from neighbouring Lebanon, and Catholic Patriarch Gregory Laham represented their churches in person.

Other denominations sent representatives, a member of the organising committee said outside the church in the city's Qasaa district.

Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam, a key adviser to Bashar al-Assad, was among ministers representing the embattled government at Yazigi's enthronement as Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.

The ceremony comes just a day after warplanes raided southern districts of the capital, the latest chapter in the nearly two-year conflict.

Rai, who has denounced states that supply money and weapons to both the Assad regime and its opponents, is the first Maronite patriarch to visit Syria since Syrian and Lebanese independence seven decades ago.

In a sermon after his arrival on Saturday evening, Patriarch Rai said: "Reforms are necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside. They must come from within through dialogue and agreement."

The Lebanon-based patriarch said his trip aimed to show "that there is unity, friendship and cooperation between the Maronite and the Orthodox churches and all the churches in Syria."

Yuhanna X Yazigi was chosen as the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East on December 17, replacing Ignatius IV Hazim who died that month.

"It is an occasion to pray alongside all who are praying for peace, tranquillity, the return of the refugees and that a peaceful and diplomatic solution may be found for the problems at hand," Rai said.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said he supported the visit.

"Not everything is linked to politics. Patriarch Rai, like Patriarch Yazigi, is aware of the needs of Christians and how to act to maintain their roots in this land," Sleiman, himself a Maronite, said in a statement.

Christians make up about five percent of the population in Syria, where rebels and forces loyal to Assad have been locked in a civil war the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people.

Rai, elected in March 2011 as the 77th patriarch of Lebanon's Maronites, in January strongly denounced states that supply money, weapons and other assistance to both the Assad regime and its opponents.

He said they would have to answer "crimes before the court of history."

Many Syrian Christians have remained neutral in the conflict, but others have taken Assad's side, fearing a rise of Islamism.

Lebanese Christians, on the other hand, are deeply divided between pro- and anti-Assad camps.


Patriarch warns Syrians of reliving Lebanon's errors




AMMAN (Reuters) - The head of Lebanon's Maronite Church evoked his country's long civil war to condemn the futility of conflict, on the second day of a controversial visit to Syria's war-ravaged capital Damascus.

At a Sunday mass broadcast live on Syrian state televisionPatriarch Beshara al-Rai appeared to dismiss the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's 13-year rule as not worth the bloodshed.

"Everything that is said and demanded in the name of what is called reform and human rights and democracy is not worth the spilt blood of an innocent person," said the 72-year-old patriarch.

Rai is on the first visit to Syria by a Maronite patriarch since the official independence of Lebanon in 1943. At a celebration in a Damascus church to mark the inauguration of a Syrian Orthodox patriarchRai did not refer to Assad directly but likened the 22-month uprising to the 1975-1990 civil war that tore apart neighboring Lebanon.

"We come during a difficult time while dear Syria is in pain. We lived in Lebanon this deep wound as a result of futile wars," Rai told the mass.

His visit comes as Christians in the region feel under threat from the rise of fundamentalist Muslim forces. Syria has about 850,000 Christians, about 4.5 percent of the population, of which about 400,000 are Catholics of the Syrian, Greek Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean and Armenian churches.

Few Christians have taken up arms in the war, which broadly pits Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiites Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.

Many in the Christian communities feel that the fall of Assad could open the way to Islamist rule in Syria and jeopardize their future.

They point to events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen where popular uprisings strengthened the position of Islamists and provoked fears among liberal Muslims and religious minorities that their rights would be trampled.


But some Christians expressed concern over Rai's public appearance in Damascus.

Bassam Ishaq, head of the Syriac National Council, a Christian opposition group, said: "Rai publicly supported an illegitimate regime. He could have sent a deputy to attend the inauguration and met himself with the heads of other churches to discuss their fears," Ishaq told Reuters from Amman.

"Christians can guard their future by playing a part in the revolt and coming out in support of a democratic Syria of equal citizenship," he added.

Some 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising, which started as peaceful street demonstrations but turned into war after authorities fired on protesters with live ammunition.

The Alawite minority has dominated power in Syria since the 1960s. Assad's late father, President Hafez al-Assad, cemented the Alawite grip on power by forging intricate alliances with the Christian ecclesiastical establishment, Sunni clerics and members of the Sunni merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo.

The Soviet-style system banned all political opposition - Hafez al-Assad used ruthless force to crush an Islamist challenge to his rule in the 1980s - but allowed freedom of belief for minority faiths.

Christians played a leading role in the opposition to Assad family rule, but few have supported the revolt.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said Rai's visit must not be interpreted politically, describing it as part of the patriarch's duty to comfort his flock during upheaval.

But Fares Soueid, an official in the March 14 movement, Lebanon's largest opposition parliamentary bloc, said Rai did a disservice to Christians by associating them with Assad.

"It is akin to the silence of the Catholic church faced with Nazi atrocities in World War Two," Souaid said.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Stephen Powell)




Al-Rahi, Meqdad Exchange Words during Yazigi's Enthronement in Damascus



Greek Orthodox leader Youhanna X Yazigi was on Sunday enthroned in Damascus during a ceremony that was attended by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi and the Syrian deputy foreign minister.

The ceremony took place at the Church of the Holy Cross in Qassaa, a central neighborhood of the conflict-hit Syrian capital.

Gregorios III Laham, Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, was also among the top spiritual officials present at the mass.

TV footage showed al-Rahi and Laham speaking with Syrian Deputy FM Faisal al-Mekdad as he entered the church to attend the ceremony.

Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam, a key adviser to Bashar Assad, was among ministers representing the embattled government.

Snipers deployed on the rooftops around the church and guests bearing official invitations were whisked through metal detectors at the door, but their chauffeurs were prohibited from parking, and throngs of devotees had to watch the liturgy on a giant screen outside.

Al-Rahi said after Yazigi's enthronement that he came to Damascus at a difficult time to confirm his solidarity with the “wounded” Syrian people.

“You have been chosen at a difficult time in Syria,” he told the Greek Orthodox patriarch. “We stress unity and love among us.”

“We are all brothers and sisters and we should preserve the life of humans,” he said.

Discussions on reform and democracy cannot be compared with the blood shed by a single person in Syria, he added.

In remarks to LBCI, al-Rahi denied that his visit had a political aspect.

Al-Rahi said on Saturday that reform in Syria is reached through internal efforts and dialogue, explaining that it cannot be imposed by any foreign interference.

During a mass he held at the Maronite Cathedral of St. Anthony in Damascus' Christian district of Bab Tuma on the occasion of St. Maroun, al-Rahi said: “Any role for the international community should not contradict with this.”

"We pray each day for the end of war and violence and that a unanimous peace may be achieved through cooperation,” he stated.

His visit -- the first by a Maronite patriarch since Syrian and Lebanese independence in 1943 -- comes as the revolt against Assad's regime nears the two-year mark.

Yazigi was chosen as the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East on December 17, replacing Ignatius IV Hazim who died earlier in the same month.

After his enthronement, Yazigi said: “Anything that harms Lebanon or Syria would affect all of us deeply.”

“We salute Lebanese President Michel Suleiman,” he said.

He also thanked Assad and said: “We hope that Syria would find a peaceful political solution so that violence ends and the country returns to stability and peace.”




Visit of Lebanese Patriarch to Syria Sparks Controversy
(Retrieved  from Al Monitor website on Feb 10, 2013)

Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai's surprise visit to Syria on the occasion of the appointment of Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X al-Yaziji, which occurred in the patriarchate's headquarters in Damascus, caused a lot of clamor in Lebanon.


This visit was the first of its kind since the two countries gained independence in 1943, and broke a long history of estrangement between the Maronite Patriarchate — based in Bkerke in Mount Lebanon — and the successive ruling authorities in Damascus.

Previously, former Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir had insisted on refusing all invitations extended to him to undertake such a visit, which the authorities in Damascus had desperately wanted during various periods of the Syrian army's presence in Lebanon. This was a long period that lasted more than 30 years. During this time, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and later his son Bashar, had on multiple occasions called for this visit for political and spiritual "coverage." Such a visit would bring about reconciliation with the Maronite Patriarchate, which considered itself — and likewise was considered by the world — to be the historical guardian of Lebanese sovereignty.

Yet Sfeir, the stubborn and elderly former patriarch, insisted on ignoring the calls and promises of making the two hour trip from Bkerke to the Syrian capital. He refused to make the trip even for religious occasions, such as when Pope John Paul II visited Damascus in 2001. This was despite the fact that the Maronite Church follows the Vatican's doctrine.

On one rare occasion, Sfeir — who had supported the Lebanese opposition for more than 15 years — expressed his views in a notable and stinging manner. At Beirut's airport, and as he was returning from an extensive tour of Lebanese diaspora communities, he was asked: "Will you visit the Muhajireen Palace in Damascus?" Smiling, he responded: "Where is this Muhajireen Palace?" This is with the knowledge that the Syrian president's headquarters were incredibly well-known within Lebanon.

Rai ended the impasse and broke with tradition at the same time. This clamor in Lebanon is also due to the fact that the local head of the church — who months ago became a cardinal and always takes unexpected positions that ignite debate — expressed his desire to visit Syria directly after being elected. This sparked discrete opposition among those in his sect who rallied around the March 14 coalition, a bloc that opposed the Syrian regime and its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. This opposition quickly became public, particularly after Rai visited Paris last year and met with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and said that the current regime in Syria was "the most democratic in the Arab world." Regarding the uproar that this comment caused within political circles — which reached the level of leaders such as Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party — Rai clarified that he intended to say that the secular Syrian regime was the most tolerant towards Christians. He stressed that his statements had been distorted.

However, Rai — who ironically was elected on March 15, 2011, when the events in Daraa were breaking out and the fuse was lit for the revolution and the conflicts that have been seen in Syria for two years — declared his desire to visit Syria right after the results of the bishops' ballot to elect a new patriarch were announced. He also announced his line [of reasoning] and technique, which differ completely from the previous reasoning and technique pursued by the Maronite Patriarchate.

With the passage of time, positions and stances within the sect have clearly shifted. This group — which had allied with Hezbollah (and thus with the Syrian regime) and was primarily represented by the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Gen. Michel Aoun — found itself close to the patriarchate and defended the visit. At the same time, Christians from the March 14 Coalition began to openly object because of the circumstances, with their main representation being found in the Lebanese Forces and Ketaeb parties.

Rai was able to rally the main, and sometimes quarreling, Maronite leaders around a concept for the parliamentary elections law whereby everyone elects members of their own sect to be their representatives in parliament. Yet, despite this, there is a group of Christians from the March 14 coalition who continue to declare in their private and public meetings that the patriarch is biased toward the idea of an "alliance of minorities” in the region, in direct contradiction to principles of “coexistence” between Christians and Muslims.

As soon as news of the visit was made public — which had been planned with great care to keep it out of the lime light — social media sites, particularly Facebook, were filled with criticisms of Rai. Some of these were particularly harsh, like those from the supporters of the powerful March 14 coalition in support of the Syrian revolution as an extension of the Beirut Spring of 2005 and the Cedar Revolution. Politicians then criticized the media, saying that it exposed Christians to danger in the midst of armed conflict in Syria. They talked about the meeting between President Assad and the patriarch in the way it gives the regime incentive to confront the revolution. President Michel Suleiman announced his support for the visit, explaining that Rai realized what he was doing as a church official whose responsibilities go beyond the borders of Lebanon.

The church responded to critics through Al-Monitor, saying that the  Maronite Patriarch is directed by the Vatican to communicate with Eastern churches from Cyprus to India. This has given him special “apostolic exhortation.” He attended the inauguration of the new Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Egypt regardless of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. He will attend the inauguration next March in Baghdad of the new Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Yonan. If there were an inauguration ceremony for a patriarch in Jerusalem, he would have attended it as well, regardless of the authorities there. Therefore, any talk about the political implications of the Maronite Patriarch’s visit to Syria is meaningless. There is a Maronite congregation in Syria that stretches from Damascus to Aleppo, as well as others that cannot be reached due to the security situation. There is no doubt that Rai will visit them all as soon as possible.

The patriarch contacted the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali, during the visit, telling him that he would not meet with any Syrian officials so as to keep the trip strictly related to church affairs and to avoid any misconceptions of his intentions.

Elie Hajj writes on politics for An-Nahar, Lebanon. He previously wrote for Al-Anbaa (Kuwait) and the online paper Elaph.


Rai’s Syria visit stirs up controversyFebruary 11, 2013 01:29 AMBy Daily Star Staff

(Retrieved from Daily Star on Feb 10, 2013)
BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said Sunday that “no so-called reforms, human rights or democracy” are “worth the blood of one innocent man,” stirring up further controversy during his historic attendance at the Damascus enthronement of a new Greek Orthodox patriarch.

As fighting raged in the nearby district of Jobar, John Yazigi took the name of John X and became the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East in a Mass at Damascus’ Holy Cross Church.

Rai is the first Maronite patriarch to visit Syria since the two countries gained independence seven decades ago. His visit drew the ire of some Lebanese opposition politicians, but he emphasized that it was “merely pastoral” and that he had gone to “meet the Christians, notably the 60,000 Maronites,” stressing that the church is “always against war and for dialogue.”

“Every person who is killed, every time blood is spilled, tears flow from the eyes of Christ. Human life is invaluable, and there are no so-called reforms, human rights or democracy that are worth the blood of one innocent man,” he said.

Rai told worshippers outside the church: “[I pray] that the consciences of local, regional and international leaders are inspired to put an immediate end to the war in dear Syria ... and bring peace through dialogue.”

The patriarch called Saturday for reforms in Syria, saying they are “necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside.”

Many of Syria’s Christians, who make up around 5 percent of the country’s population, have attempted to distance themselves from the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has turned violent and left more than 60,000 dead according to a United Nations toll.

Fares Souaid, coordinator of March 14’s general secretariat, told a local television station that Rai had no urgent reason to attend the ceremony, given that Yazigi is expected to visit Lebanon next week, adding that the patriarch had forced the hand of Lebanon’s Maronites on the subject of Syria.

“Rai’s visit obligates the Maronite sect to support the Syrian president, and it gives off an image that the Syrian regime will use to present itself as close to the Syrian Christians,” Souaid said, adding that it places Syria’s Christians in direct confrontation with “the Islamists who are leading the uprising” against Assad.

He said that he hoped only Maronites would comment on the visit, but on Twitter called for “those who do not agree with the patriarch’s visit to Damascus to express their opinions openly.”

Saleh Mashnouq, a March 14 official and son of Future MP Nuhad Mashnouq, posted on his Facebook page that Rai was participating in “a demonic Mass in Damascus.” “Through this Mass in Damascus, Patriarch Rai has established his partnership with Satan, and anyone who thinks religious men who support criminality have immunity is not one of us,” he wrote.

Some members of the opposition were less critical of Rai’s trip. MP Butros Harb expressed concern Sunday that the Syrian regime would exploit Rai’s visit for its own benefit.

“I know that the visit is religious, but I fear the Syrian regime will give the trip a political dimension to spread rumors that the Maronite Patriarchate is supporting one Syrian side at the expense of the other, and ultimately engage the church in the Syrian conflict,” Harb told a local radio station.

Future MP Nidal Tohme told visitors to his Akkar residence Sunday that the issue should not be given too much weight. “There are Christians in Syria and it is normal that the patriarch would check on how they are doing, especially in such critical circumstances. This has nothing to do with politics,” he said.

Over the weekend, Bishop Samir Mazloum also said there was no political dimension to Rai’s visit and that the patriarch would not meet any Syrian officials during his stay.

President Michel Sleiman also said the trip should not be politicized, adding that he supported the move.

But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, who was seen on TV footage talking to Rai as they entered the ceremony, suggested Sunday that the patriarch’s visit was a nod of support for the embattled regime.

“Patriarch Rai has corrected the wrong that was done in the past decades,” with the failure of previous patriarchs to come to Syria,” Meqdad said.

Devotees watched the proceedings on a giant screen outside, and Meqdad said the turnout “represents a stand in the face of the West, telling them not to interfere in our affairs and stop slaughtering and killing our people, and this is what Patriarch Rai has reiterated.”

He welcomed Rai, saying that the people of Syria and Lebanon are one and “Rai is now in his homeland and we welcome him in his country and among his people. We welcome the values, the legacy, the history and civilization he represents.”

Meqdad added that “our message to the Syrians is to go back to their Syrian patriotism, national unity, common history and values, and through national dialogue and national reconciliation we will restore the prosperity, glory, pride and victory to Syria.”

Guests with official invitations, including key Assad aide Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam and Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius Lahham III, passed through metal detectors amid heavy security.

Snipers were deployed on the rooftops around the church as dignitaries arrived.

During the inauguration, which was broadcast live by Syrian State TV, Yazigi said “we are certain that Syria will find a way to salvation through dialogue and a peaceful solution.”

Yazigi thanked Assad and other officials for supporting or attending the ceremony, and saluted President Michel Sleiman, saying anything that goes wrong in either Lebanon or Syria would “strike us [the church] at its core.”

“God is not pleased when he sees the society we share with our non-Christian brothers shattered over politics,” he said. “Among us and among them there are people who subscribe to fundamentalist tendencies that have nothing to do with religion.”

Yazigi succeeds Patriarch Hazim Ignatius IV, who died in December 2012.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2013, on page 1.