Destitute refugees now comprise half the people living in Lebanon,
Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, has
said during his visit to New York. He added that refugees are attractive targets for terrorist
recruiting, and their continued presence threatens to drown Lebanon’s
identity, he said.
Cardinal Rai spoke yesterday at Catholic Near East Welfare
Association headquarters in New York while in the United States for a
pastoral visit. A permanent solution to the refugee crises throughout the Middle East
requires lasting peace and the repatriation of refugees, not
resettlement to third countries, he added. “A political solution to the conflicts ought to be the top priority,
and a just, global and permanent peace should be established as soon as
possible,” the Lebanese cardinal said.
“We would ask nations to help refugees where they are; but it’s not
enough to help, they should also stop wars, because every day we are at
war, we’re creating new refugees,” Cardinal Rai said. “We must find a
just, global and lasting peace for refugees, repatriate them and help
them rebuild their lives and businesses.”
“The longer we delay the solutions, the more open we become to
terrorism, because terrorists recruit among the refugees,” Cardinal Rai
said. The refugees need money and the terrorists pay them, he explained.
The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims is the largest conflict
in the region, with Saudi Arabia representing the Sunni faction and Iran
the Shia, Cardinal Rai said.
The United States could play an important role mediating peace between the two countries, he said.
In Syria, reconciliation will only be accomplished when the foreign
factions that entered the conflict reconcile their own differences,
practice justice, and recognise the humanity of those affected.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the origin of the Middle
Eastern problems” and could be solved through “the establishment of a
Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state, the return of Palestinian
refugees, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied
territories of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon,” the patriarch said.
“You cannot really come to agreement or establish peace without justice,” he said.
“The separation between religion and state for both Judaism and Islam
is one of the basic conditions for a permanent political solution in
the region,” he said.
When a country has an official religion, “you are in deep trouble
because you are automatically excluding citizens who do not confess the
religion of the state,” he said.
Cardinal Rai said, “Despite all the difficulties plaguing the
Lebanese system,” it could be a model for the workable separation of
church and state.”
It is the only country in the Middle East without either a state
religion or requirement that the head of state must be a Muslim. Under
an agreement forged in 1943, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon “live
together on an equal basis” and share leadership of the government, he
There are 18 distinct religious groups in the country and all are recognised in the parliament.
Under the agreement, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the
prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia
Muslim. Nonetheless, the Lebanese presidency has been vacant since May
Cardinal Rai said Islamic nations cause great harm to Islam by acting
as “silent observers, simply looking and doing nothing about the
so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and all terrorist organisations.”
Sunnis and Shias should condemn attacks on Christian and ethnic and
religious minorities, including the violation of their churches, homes
and possessions, he said.
Christians and Muslims have lived together in the Middle East for
1,400 years. In recent years, most of the Christians in Iraq and Syria
have been killed or displaced by international military, ethnic and
racial conflicts in which they took no sides, but paid the heaviest
price, Cardinal Rai said. Despite the circumstances, Christians remain
attached to their lands, and committed to Gospel values, Christian
witness and cooperation with their compatriots, he said.
“The absence of Christians from the Middle East, or the weakening of
their cultural influence, will certainly impoverish both Christians and
Muslims, as it harms the culture of dialogue and coexistence,” the
Cardinal Rai said the international community bears significant
responsibility for the conflict in Syria because some members give
monetary, military political or personnel support to terrorist
organisations who take the conflicts to neighbouring countries and
Western nations, and make terrorism a global problem.
Cardinal Rai is the leader of the Lebanon-based Maronite Catholic
Church, the largest of six Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches.
There are more than 3 million members worldwide, approximately 85,000 of whom live in the United States.
Lebanon is the size of the state of Connecticut. The country’s 4
million inhabitants are host to 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 500,000
Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians began to arrive more than 30
years ago for what was anticipated to be a temporary stay.
The presence of so many refugees is destabilising, according to Archbishop Paul Sayah, vicar general of the patriarchate.
Suicide bombings in a Christian village in northeast Lebanon
yesterday killed at least five people and are an example of what could
happen more frequently if refugees are not repatriated, he said.
“I don’t know how Lebanon is surviving. It’s a miracle it’s still
functioning. The refugees are living in misery. No human should be
subjected to such misery,” he said.
“The problem is we are making refugees of the Lebanese,” Cardinal Rai
said. Lebanese are leaving the country because of economic stress.
He said Syrians will work for half the wages, their shops will sell goods for half the profit and they don’t pay taxes.
“Our cultural identity is threatened by the presence of the refugees,” he said.
Cardinal Rai said Catholic aid is crucial to the people of Lebanon.
Citing Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services
and Aid to the Church in Need, Cardinal Rai said, “If they don’t do it,
it’s not getting done. The vast majority of people being helped are
non-Christian and the vast majority of the helpers are Christian.”