Beirut (AsiaNews) - The Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai left today for Turkey, for a pastoral visit that will take him to Adana, Tartous, Antioch (Antakya), Mersin and Iskenderun.
On June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the patriarch will celebrate Mass at Antioch, in a roch-hewn church which tradition holds was carved into a hillside at the time of Peter (40-50 AD), and possibly used by that same prince of the apostles. It must be said that the patriarch of the Maronite Church carries the title "of Antioch," being linked to the apostolic tradition of Antioch.
Turkey ranks the cave church as a historic monument, but it allows Mass and prayers to be celebrated there occasionally, as on Christmas and the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
The celebration of the Patriarch Rai will be the first of its kind; his pilgrimage to Antioch is unprecedented in the history of the Maronite Church.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us that it was precisely in Antioch that the disciples of Jesus, coming from Judaism and from paganism, were called "Christians" for the first time.
The Maronite patriarch bears the title of Patriarch of Antioch and All the East in reference to a time when from the cultural and demographic point of view, the city of Antioch was one of the most vibrant centers of the Roman Empire. At the time of the apostles, it had about half a million inhabitants and had become an important point of origin for the development of early Christianity.
The partriarch's delegation also includes his deputy, Msgr. Boulos Sayah. The group will also have meetings with the Turkish authorities.
Meanwhile, the Foundation of Maronites in the world rushed to prepare a special plane to transport to the scene several hundred Maronite personalities, along with a delegation of journalists. The Mass at Antioch will be celebrated at 11:30 (local time) and broadcast live by Télé-lumiere, the Catholic television station in Lebanon.
Some months ago, the patriarch went to Ankara to make contact with the religious and civil authorities of Turkey, who seems to be ever more open to interfaith dialogue.
From a demographic standpoint, the Maronite presence in the region is insignificant. In Antioch, there are only two Maronite families, one hundred in Mersin and thirty at Iskenderun. In Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, there are signs of an economic boom which occurred in the 1920s, which led many Christians of Lebanon to work in the growing of wood and cotton. The order of Antonini monks had at that time a school and a convent.
Recently, the Turkish authorities have made some gestures of openness towards the Orthodox Church, returning to their rightful owners some buildings that had once been confiscated. The Maronite Church also hopes to be able to get back some property confiscated in the era of 'secularism to the bitter end', which marked the history of Turkey after the First World War.