09/08/2011, 00.00
LEBANON – FRANCE
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Patriarch Maronite: Lebanon’s pluralism as a peaceful solution for Mideast upheaval

by Fady Noun
On an official visit to France, Bechara al-Rahi talks about the Arab spring and its developments, which are a source of concern and embarrassment among eastern Christian communities. Fears of Islamisation alternate with hopes in a future based on the separation of state and religion and full religions freedom. Lebanon’s model of coexistence is put forward.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Embarrassment and concern are the two emotions that partly describe the reactions of Eastern Christian communities to the geopolitical changes unfolding across the Arab world. Positions taken vis-à-vis the upheaval reflect this sense of embarrassment. By and large, Middle Eastern Churches were caught off guard by events, expressing reservations about them, especially in the cases of Syria and Egypt, countries with large Christian communities.

Mistrust was the first reaction of Catholic Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib. A possible takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt explains this mistrust. Christian communities are afraid that one dictatorship might replace another. In some carefully crafted speeches, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi, who is currently on an official visit to France, expressed what local Churches feel in relation to such a hot and delicate issue.

In his meetings at the Elysée Palace (the French Presidency), Hôtel Matignon (Prime Minister’s Office), the Senate and Quai d’Orsay (Foreign Ministry), the head of the Maronite Church (according to tradition the new patriarch’s first foreign visit is always to France) spoke about the “fears caused by geopolitical changes currently underway in some Middle Eastern countries.”

Speaking about Syria, with which Lebanon has close relations and where the Maronite Church has three dioceses, the head of the Maronite Church said he feared that events might lead to a civil war or “a drift towards extremism”. Whilst acknowledging the legitimacy of local aspirations for change, the patriarch said that no one could ignore the role played by foreign meddling in causing the unrest.

As a general principle, Patriarch al-Rahi opposes the breakup of the Middle East along regional and confessional lines. “In the past few months, the political geography of the Middle East has begun to change. This has caused us embarrassment and concern,” the prelate said. “We know very well that deep domestic and foreign forces are sapping from below societies that aspire to change, not to mention outside interferences. In order to solve this problem and clarify our positions on what we accept and what we reject, we have a few ideas.”

“As far as we Lebanese are concerned,” the patriarch said, “in relation to Eastern Christians, we reject the tendency to divide the Middle East along confessional lines because we believe that pluralism, whereby minorities come together harmoniously, is the best system to guarantee dignity and freedom as well as our presence and prosperity in the Middle East. [. . .] We therefore propose, against all forms of sectarianism, a model of state that guarantees the separation of state and religion, based on fundamental human rights and the recognition of freedom of worship whilst ensuring a dignified and safe life to all minorities.”

Lebanon’s specificity

The patriarch also reiterated his hostility to the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon. He insisted that they must “keep their refugee status” and remain under the authority of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency).

“We call upon France to preserve Lebanon’s specificity,” said Bechara al-Rahi, adding that “being Francophone” is an “important aspect for our country” and the “cornerstone of an in-depth cooperation” between the Lebanon and France. Equally, he called for “the consolidation of the Francophonie (in Lebanon) through more effective means.”

Welcomed to the Senate by Speaker Gérard Larcher, the patriarch used the opportunity to appeal to the Lebanese with regards to the great upheavals that have marked the region. In it, he urged his compatriots to “intensify their dialogue in a spirit of true national reconciliation” and “make the National Pact their own.”

In remarks addressed in particular to Hizbollah, he noted, “No single Lebanese faction can, under present circumstances, lead Lebanon into the future. Any claim by any one group that they can speak on behalf of Lebanon is made illegitimate by domestic divisions.”

In another passage, Bechara al-Rahi stole a smile from those present as he reminded them that France and Lebanon have a “shared history” and that the “chapel across the Petit Luxembourg (seat of the French Senate) was the first place of worship Maronites had in France between the 1893 and 1899”.
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