Cardinal Bechara Butros Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch.

Cardinal Bechara Butros Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch.

In much of the Middle East, Christians face grave difficulties. But in Lebanon, for generations a “mod­el” of religious coexistence, Christians have lived in relative security and peace. A leader in the effort to keep this so is Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai, 72, head of Lebanon’s Eastern-rite Maronite Church. For his tireless efforts to defend Lebanon’s “model” of peaceful coexistence and to assist the Christians of the Middle East, we honor Patriarch Rai as one of the “Top Ten People” of 2012.

His people love Rai as a father. He is resolute in his defense of them. But this very resoluteness has stirred controversy.

For example, Rai has said he fears an overthrow of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, even though the United States and other Western powers have supported the rebels against Assad. Assad’s overthrow could lead to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rai observes, bringing greater difficulties for Syrian Christians.

“All regimes in the Arab world have Islam as a state religion except for Syria,” Rai told Reuters March 4. “Syria stands out for not saying it is an Islamic state… The closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world] is Syria.”

This remark raised eyebrows throughout the world. Yet, precisely because he is blunt and outspoken, Rai is one of the key protagonists in the Middle East peace process.

One of Rai’s first initiatives after being named Patriarch on March 15, 2011, was to organize a meeting in Bkerké, seat of the Patriarchate of Beirut, at the foot of the Shrine of Our Lady of Harissa. He brought together the leaders of the main Maronite political currents: Amin Gemayel, Michel Aoun, and Samir Geagea Sleiman Frangié.

Two months later, he brought together representatives of the various faiths in Lebanon. They drafted a joint document at Bkerké and proclaimed: “At a time when many Arab countries are the scene of events of historic importance, the Lebanese formula is valued more than ever. It provides for the respect for individual and public freedoms, religious and political, and we reaffirm the importance of the commitment of all of us Lebanese to the democratic parliamentary system.”

The document reaffirmed the principle of “national unity among all Lebanese” and a “commitment to a culture of dialogue” that “respects different points of view, however radical they may be.”

The document also stressed “the importance of regulating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the key to peace, security and stability, based on the liberation of all the occupied Arab territories.” And there was an invitation to young people “to stay connected to their land and to their homeland, to preserve them from generation to generation,” remaining loyal to their faith and “open to pluralism.”

Beyond politics, however, the real task of the Patriarch is to care for his Maronite community spiritually.

In fact, it seems vocations are not lacking either among the clergy or among religious men, though there is a decline in women religious. “At Byblos, the theology students have never dropped below the number of 25,” Rai says. “Every year there are three or four ordinations. Of 80 priests, I have ordained 63.”

In the Maronite community, there is a married priesthood, and the priests have families. “In small, isolated mountain parishes,” Rai said, “married priests are very useful. They can be helped by their families.”

Patriarch Bechara Rai welcomes a Syrian religious delegation, and Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul Karim Ali, second from left, in Bkerke, Lebanon, on September 28 (CNS photo).

Patriarch Bechara Rai welcomes a Syrian religious delegation, and Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul Karim Ali, second from left, in Bkerke, Lebanon, on September 28 (CNS photo).

He added: “In everyday life, no distinction is made between married and celibate priests. We never had divorces, only in one case a separation. In addition, the priests are married before the diaconate and usually with young women already well integrated as catechists and animators in the life of the parish or Catholic associations. So they live a stable family life, basically serene, very useful for their service to the Church.”

Bechara Rai was born in 1940, and in the last consistory in November he received the cardinal’s hat, as had three of his predecessors. This was an important celebration for the Maronite faithful who still had the images of Benedict XVI’s visit to Beirut in September fresh in their memory.

During that visit, Pope Benedict met with Lebanon’s young people in the square just in front of the patriarchate.

“We have preserved all the talks and sermons that he gave when he came to Lebanon,” Rai said. “It’s really a roadmap that he has shown us, and that’s why every time we listen to him, he gives us courage and makes us understand that we should not be afraid of the challenges and difficulties that everyone knows. Yes, it’s true: we are experiencing very difficult times with the conflicts that are going on, the rise of fundamentalism, war, terrorism, political divisions… Despite all this, however, there is always trust in God and in the Church, which must always be a messenger of peace and stability. This is what the Holy Father always repeated. My commitment, and that of all my bishops, is to live up to his intentions. The key challenge is to move forward, re-create, re-build our internal unity, and then support our fellow Christians in the Middle East and create stronger relationships to the Muslims to lighten up a bit the tensions caused by the radicals and fundamentalists. These are the biggest challenges that we want to deal with.”

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