11/09/2015, 00.00
LEBANON-SYRIA
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First official visit to Lebanon by Ignazio Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch

by Fady Noun
Head of the Syriac Church speaks of urgent need to protect Christian-Muslim solidarity and elect a new Lebanese president. The Assyrian Christians in Sadad (Syria) threatened by the advance of the Islamic state. Appeals for two orthodox bishops, abducted 18 months ago. Two steles erected in memory of the 1915 genocide, which saw the Armenians as principal victims, but also Syrians, Chaldeans and Assyrians.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - "Our mission in the Middle East is to be servants and not masters. Christians and Muslims in the region must work for peace ", was the focus of the message that Ignatius Ephrem II, new Syrian Orthodox patriarch, launched on his first official visit to Lebanon.

He concluded his visit yesterday with a solemn Mass in the Church of St. Ephrem in Beirut in the presence of Lebanese authorities and figures.

The Patriarch arrived in the "land of cedars" on 6 November, after visiting Sadad (Syria), where there is one of the most ancient roots of the Eastern Syriac community, at present under threat from groups of the Islamic State. In order to visit Sadad, the patriarch interrupted a trip to the US. His arrival in Beirut was to encourage the faithful to remain bound to the East.

The patriarch is very familiar with Lebanon. Born in 1965 in Kamichli (Syria), he completed his theological studies in the convent of Atchaneh (Metn - Lebanon), then continued in Cairo, in Ireland and Britain. In Atchaneh, March 31, 2014, the Synod chose him to succeed the Patriarch Zakka Iwas II.

During the divine liturgy, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch appealed for the rapid election of a new President of the Republic of Lebanon, and for  Muslims and Christians in Lebanon "to work in a spirit of sharing and brotherhood to safeguard Lebanon and its unity" .

"The region of the Middle East - he said - is dear to our hearts. Here is where we have taken root and where we grew, and we will stay until the end of time. "

Praying that " human rights and dignity are respected", he added. "How can we live without seeing the presence of God in every human face? Why are we working to eliminate each other, instead of educating and helping each other to grow to maturity? ".

The patriarch congratulated the Assyrian Church for the recent release of 37 faithful, hostages of the Islamic State, after the payment of a hefty ransom. But he also remembered and prayed for the return of the bishops of Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi (greek-orthodox) et Youhanna Ibrahim (Syrian Orthodox), kidnapped in Syria 18 months ago and all trace of whom seem to be lost.

Civil and religious spheres

On 6 November, the Patriarch visited the civil and religious leaders in Lebanon. He was received by the Speaker of the House, Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Tammam Salam, as well as by Sheikh Abdel Latif Deriane, Mufti of the Republic, by Abdel Amir Kabalan, vice-president of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, and Naïm Hassan, Sheikh Akl of the Druze community.

The day ended with a dinner in a large hotel in Beirut. On this occasion, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, praised Lebanon as a "country of refuge" for all those who aspire to freedom and explained that in the Syriac language, the word "Lebanon" means "heart of God".

"We want this country to remain a nation that is open to the world, and that every Lebanese is open to his compatriot," he pointed out, praying that the Lebanese are able to "unite in solidarity and in common interests, starting from the election of a new head of state”.

He also expressed the hope that Syriac MPs and ministers are elected or chosen. "Our mission in the East - he added - is to be servants and not masters. Christians and Muslims in the region must work for peace. We lived together for hundreds of years and we have no other choice but to live together in a family spirit and mutual brotherly love ".

After visiting the Dar el-Fatwa, the higher Sunnis institution in Lebanon, Ignatius Ephrem II stated: "Our visit here is not simple protocol. It wants to strengthen the bonds of cordiality and love that exist between the Syriac Church and Muslims, especially in this neighborhood of Beirut, which is home to the headquarters of the episcopate and where the oldest Syriac church stands, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul".

On November 6, the patriarch celebrated Mass in this cathedral and blessed one of the two stelae erected to commemorate the genocide of 1915, whose victims are Armenians, but also Syrians, Chaldeans and Assyrians. The other pillar was erected in the church of St. Ephrem.

It is worth mentioning that the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate has recognized some apparitions of the Virgin on the dome of the cathedral of Mousseitbé, several times in 1970, during the Easter period. These appearances have been interpreted as a warning in relation to difficulties and pains that Lebanon was about to experience during the civil war (1975-1990).

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