Maronite Patriarch against the confessional division in the Middle East
by Fady Noun
Mgr Bishara al-Rai called again for prudence vis-à-vis the ‘Arab spring’. He warned of possible confessional conflicts, harsher regimes and a confessional division of the region. Mgr Caccia welcomes the reopening of Beirut synagogue as a token of hope for the future.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Maronite Patriarch, Mgr Bishara al-Rai, called for a prudence vis-à-vis the ‘Arab spring’. He is concerned that it might lead to “confessional conflicts, harsher regimes and a confessional division of the region”. The patriarch spoke at a conference organised by the Holy Spirit University, which is connected to the Lebanese Maronite Order. Held on 18 November, it saw the participation of Members of the European parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Lebanese Parliament and the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union.
In his intervention, the patriarch said, “The Synod of Bishops, called by His Holiness Benedict XVI, in Special Assembly on the Middle East between 10 and 24 October, confirmed [. . .] that the Christian presence in the East has to be understood in terms of ‘communion and witness’. This means that our future cannot be outside, on the sideline or against the society in which we live”.
“Communion is a theological concept that means unity in diversity,” he said in his address, which he delivered in French. “Every Christian is called first and foremost to live in love within the Church, in the image of the Holy Trinitarian Communion. This means that the bases for our presence in the East are written in the core of our faith and are not just connected to our choice or our presence’s historical and material circumstances.”
Moving to another level, the patriarch said, “In political terms, such communion means a shared national identity, a common citizenship and participation. Recent changes in some Arab countries constitute a challenge. They express a reawakening as well as a commitment to a shared national identity. However, we fear that they may lead to confessional conflicts, the rise of harsher regimes and a confessional division of the region. Only one national identity can be shared, one that includes all cultural contributions, to ensure fruitful and peaceful coexistence. Christians, with their friends here and elsewhere, must resist all attempts to define our nations and societies in terms of religious identity. We must oppose Islamic exclusivism in the identity of our countries as much as Israel’s Jewishness. We welcome the fortunate statement by al-Azhar [University] in June, saying that Islam does not claim any religious identity for the state, which must be neither religious nor theocratic, but secular, whilst respecting fundamental religious values.”
The patriarch also spoke about the challenges Christian witness faces in terms of security, fundamental freedoms and the recognition of diversity. “We know that security is fundamental in the life of individuals and groups [. . .]. In this context, we say that security is a right every citizen should enjoy, and that the state must provide it. It is not a matter of minorities being protected by majorities, but of a fundamental right shared by all without distinction or discrimination.”
Sadly, recent incidents have cast a dangerous shadow on this right. “In light of the religious intolerance evinced in a number of bloody and painful episodes, I urge Muslim and Christian religious authorities, as I did at the Muslim-Christian summit held at the Maronite Patriarchate on 12 May, to speak out against religious war in all its aspects, and promote [instead] coexistence based on a common citizenship and the fundamental rights of man.”
“As for fundamental freedoms, sometimes we suffer from a lack of security,” Mgr Bishara al-Rai added. “In some of the region’s nations, we suffer under certain forms of social and political control that oppress certain fundamental freedoms, like freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom of expression. For citizens and religious believers alike, freedom is like oxygen. It is so important for us that the history of the Maronite Church is one long adventure and defence of freedom at great cost.”
“The Special Synod on the Middle East dealt with the issue of Freedom [. . .]. The Instrumentum laboris (n.36) distinguishes freedom of worship from freedom of conscience. The two face limits and impediments. Freedom of conscience—i.e. the freedom to believe or not believe, to practice a religion in private and in public, without impediments, including the right to change religion—is still far from guaranteed in our society. Sometimes it is even legally banned. Lebanon is the one exception. Even freedom of worship is indirectly touched by difficult and unfair procedures that impose permits to build and repair places of worship.”
For the Maronite patriarch, there is another challenge. “The third challenge is the recognition of diversity [. . .]. Let us admit that it is hard to welcome other believers, in their diversity, as a positive element in one’s social and cultural space as well as one’s inner sanctum. More than a thousand years of Christian-Muslim coexistence in the region teaches us that through lifelong dialogue irreconcilable differences can be overcome and even transformed into mutual enrichment. Speaking about Lebanon, the Blessed John Paul II said it was more than a country, that it was a message and a model of pluralism for the East and the West. At a time of turmoil and quest for the truth, we hope to see Lebanon take on its role of message [. . .]. This responsibility means opposing all forms of fundamentalism, fanaticism and xenophobia.”
Finally, “We have no fears for the Christian presence in the East,” the patriarch said, “because we believe it depends more on God’s will than our choice. We know that an Arab world without Christians would be a catastrophe for East and West because it would be the end of the Arabs as a plural culture, which would be swallowed up by the religious culture of Islam. Neither Islam nor Europe could live with such a situation.”
Mgr Gabriele Caccia, apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, was also present at the conference. He reiterated Lebanon’s vocation for unity in diversity. Although "a small country, it can be compared to a laboratory,” he said. “In a world that is becoming increasingly multicultural, multiethnic and multi-confessional, the experience of the Land of Cedars is comforting. It gives us strength for it shows that a world that respects human dignity and a plurality of cultural traditions based on religious freedom and freedom of conscience is not only a dream to strive for but also a possible reality that is already partly realised.”
“The restoration of the synagogue in central Beirut is an eloquent sign of hope for a future in which peace has been finally attained," he added.