4 October 2011
The head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Peter Bechara, has stirred up controversy in his home turf of Lebanon, as well as in Europe and North America. Earlier in September — while in France on his first official trip as the patriarch of the world’s 5.5 million Maronites — he voiced his concern for Syria’s Christians should the current government there collapse.
While not supporting the Assad regime, the patriarch expressed alarm about the possibility of a militarized civil war in Syria, which could divide the country along religious lines, and the subsequent rise of a militant Islamic state. While Christians make up 10 percent of the population, they are a protected minority by President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite community, a small sect derived from Shiite Islam. The vast majority of Syrians, 80 percent of the population, are Sunni Muslims.
The patriarch’s remarks created a furor in Lebanon, where Maronite Christians are divided between those who support Syria and their Shiite Muslim allies in Lebanon and those Maronites who have sought alliances with Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims. This controversy has affected the patriarch’s first pastoral visit to the United States, when a meeting with President Barack Obama was canceled. Though no official explanation has been given for the change of plans, Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn has made it clear in an open letter to the president that the Obama Administration rebuffed the patriarch:
“Because he has spoken out expressing his concern for the future of Christians in the Middle East, he has been rebuffed by you and your Administration. It is pure hypocrisy for the leader of the free world to refuse to meet with Patriarch Rai especially since the Prime Minister of Israel can come and completely disregard essential parts of a peace plan and still be given a warm welcome, and the King of Saudi Arabia, where Christians have no freedom whatsoever, can be received with highest honors. Mr. President, you are ignoring the plight of Christians in the Middle East!”
Catholic News Service has more background and information over at their blog.