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Lebanon’s new Patriarch wary of regime change in Syria

In this Sunday, April 1, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army fighters train in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria.


It was a long way to go to mass Sunday.

In the past, I have sometimes dropped in on the Maronite Patriarch in Bkerke, his stately residence on Mount Lebanon not far outside Beirut. I attend Sunday mass (usually a high mass since he's celebrating it) and then join others afterwards in the dewan (reception salon) to chat with him.

For a lapsed Catholic, it's a bit of a trip down memory lane, but for a journalist, often very insightful.

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So this past weekend I wanted to go see the new Patriarch of Antioch, as he is formally known, Beshara Rai, who was made Patriarch on March 15, last year, the day the Syrian uprising began.

The only trouble is, this being August, the Patriarch is at his official summer residence near The Cedars in northern Lebanon.

Fortunately, Lebanon is not a big country and Sunday traffic is very light. No matter that the majority of Lebanese are no longer Christian, Sunday remains a day of rest for everyone.

The smallish church was full, and many people sat on plastic chairs that were arranged to supplement the pews. People from all over the North had come to celebrate Patriarch Rai's first mass of the year here.

It was an inviting service. The church ceiling is painted with beautiful mountain scenes as well as paintings of the life of Jesus; the mass was full of joyful singing (all in Arabic). The Maronites report to the Vatican too, so a lot of it resembled the Catholic masses I once attended.

And, afterward, the dewan was overflowing with people who wanted to speak with the Patriarch. Some came to have their young children blessed by the man; others showed him maps or legal documents that detailed land or other disputes they were having with other Lebanese, often Muslims. He nodded, appreciatively, and handed them over to aides for more technical assistance. Many just wanted their picture taken with the leader of the world's Maronites.

Waiting until everyone else had had their time with him, I asked the Patriarch if he was concerned about what might happen next to the Christian communities in northern Lebanon that were being shelled by the Syrian army for allegedly helping support Syrian refugees and/or fighters in the rebellion in that country.

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Last week when I was in that area, I went to a small 700-year-old church that sits overlooking Syria and the border in the valley between the two countries.

Workers were busy laying new stone walkways, painting everything metal and generally sprucing the place up.

They told me the Patriarch was making a rare visit to their church and some other Christian sites along the border on August 15, the feast of the Virgin Mary, a national holiday.

His Eminence said on this past Sunday people in the North "have reason to be concerned," but added "I cannot prophesy what Syria might do next."

When I asked the Patriarch to explain what he saw as the cause of their concern, he referred me to what he had said to French president Nicolas Sarkozy last fall. "I have not changed my views," he said.

Well, what he said last fall was a mouthful.

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"Any further escalation of the crisis in Syria will lead to a stricter regime than the current one, such as the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood," he told the then-president of France, "and the Christians will pay the price."

The former Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, was very opposed to the Syrian regime and to the Lebanese Christian political leader Michel Aoun, whose alliance with the powerful Shia Hezbollah movement, had brought a pro-Syria government to office in Lebanon.

Patriarch Rai, however, likes Michel Aoun, a former commander of the Lebanese Army, and he has not been publically critical of Bashar al-Assad. The Church leader's chief concern is for the Christian communities of Lebanon and Syria.

He also told Mr. Sarkozy that "regime change in Syria and the emergence of a Sunni regime will lead to an alliance between them and their Sunni brothers in Lebanon, thus further worsening the crisis between the Shiites and the Sunnis."

The Patriarch had warned the French leader: "What we are asking of the international community and France is not to rush into resolutions that strive to change regimes."

I reminded Patriarch Rai that some people in Lebanon view his position as being pro-Assad.

The almost permanently set smile on his face dropped, suddenly, and he spat out the words: "The people who say that are paid to lie."

The interview was over.

A week ago, in that northern churchyard on the Syrian border, the work crew's foreman, a retired Lebanese Army sergeant named George Moussa, had said the people in his small town, Menjaz, were relieved that the Patriarch was coming to the area as a show of support that might make a difference to how the Syrians behave.


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