Maronite Patriarch Highlights One Church of Mercy Conference
In both scripted and spontaneous remarks Friday at the One Church of Mercy Conference hosted by the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Clifton/Cincinnati), the head of the Maronite Catholic Church called for keeping refugees in their own countries, working with Muslims who reject ISIS and similar ideologies, and establishing a Palestinian state.
The half-day conference co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati as part of the national Fortnight for Freedom included information about the more than 20 Eastern Catholic churches and especially the two largest represented in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (the Maronite and Syro-Malabar Churches). Each has its own hierarchy and liturgy, explained Fr. George Hajj, pastor of the St. Anthony of Padua Maronite parish (Walnut Hills/Cincinnati) and each traces its roots to the Apostles: the Maronites to St. Peter, who established the Church in Antioch (a city in what is now Turkey), and the Syro-Malabar Church to St. Thomas.
“What does it mean to be a Catholic?” Fr. Hajj asked. “It is whole; it is universal. Not one race, not unique — It means that it holds everyone. And this is how the Church started, from the very beginning. The Church became larger and larger, but always looking to Peter as the unter.”
What the Churches have in common, he explained, are that they share the same dogma, the same mysteries (sacraments), the same moral teachings, and Peter, the first pope.
As a sign of that unity, the head of the Maronite Church always takes the name Peter. The current Patriarch, Mar Bashara Peter, Cardinal Rai, is the 77th successor of Peter. Although the Church has been based in Lebanon for many centuries, two thirds of its members now live in other countries.
Fr. Siju Azhakath, pastor of the Syro-Malabar mission that meets at Our Lady of the Rosary Church (Greenhills, OH), explained that the Church is “Catholic in faith, Indian in culture, and Eastern in expression.” He explained how the parish serves Indian Catholics in from throughout the region with catechetical classes for children as well weekly services and other sacraments.
A third Eastern Church with a presence in Cincinnati, the Byzantine Catholic Church, did not make a presentation.
Tony Steiritz, director of the Archdiocese’s Social Action Office, talked about refugee services and Kristen Evans, a representative of the ecumenical non-profit In Defense of Christians, spoke about what the group does to help Christians in their countries as well as to promote legislation and American aid.
His Beatitude, Cardinal Rai, delivered a brief talk about the Maronite Church in Lebanon, where, he said, Christians lived alongside Muslims for more than 1400 years until the rise of radical Islam. “They lived in the same country [as Muslims] with wisdom and prudence. They obeyed the laws. They had the confidence of kings, rules, and presidents.”
And today, he said, Maronite Christians, like other Christians in the Middle East, want to remain in or return to their homes. “Despite everything, Christians remain attached to their lands, their cultures, and their freedoms, and to the teachings of Christ and His Church. They remain committed to cooperation with their compatriots and their desire to live peacefully in a diversity in which Christian witness is a source of richness.”
Countries in the West, he said, should help Christian and Muslim refugees return to their homes and lands, not resettle them in camps in foreign countries to become targets for terrorist recruiters. He also called for encouraging moderate Islamic regimes — ISIS and similar groups “cause great harm to Islam itself,” he said, and Islamic leaders should be encouraged to issue fatwas (official condemnations) against attacking Christians and other minority groups.
“The international community bears responsibility for conflicts in Syria, Yemen,” and other Muslim countries, he added because foreign nations have supported terrorist groups with money and aid.
Following the speech, the Patriarch took questions from the audience and answered in Arabic, with a Maronite bishop translating both the questions and answers. Speaking extemporaneously, His Beatitude displayed passion and conviction less evident in his prepared remarks delivered in English. He called for the election of a president in Lebanon that would not be “a president for the Sunnis or a president for the Shiites, but a president for everyone.”
Saying, “you can separate religion from the state, but you don’t have to separate God from the state,” he called for Lebanon to become a country for both Muslims and Christians again.
Asserting that it’s possible to distinguish between “true Islam and the terrorists who call themselves Muslims,” he called for Western countries, and America in particular, to stop wars in the Middle East so that refugees can return home. And he spoke movingly of the impossible conditions in his native country.
“Lebanon has had to shelter 1.4 million refugees” from Syria and other nearby countries, he said, “on top of 500 million Palestinian refugees, Half our population is now refugees. You can imagine the burden on the economy, the society, on education, on politics… and those numbers are constantly on the rise.”
To the plaintive question of what we can do to help, His Beatitude said that all leaders have a duty to condemn ISIS, but also a responsibility to the people most in danger.
“Remember us,” when taking a stand, he begged. “Islam considers the West as Christian. Whatever decisions are made in the US are considered Christian. When those decisions please Islam, we benefit. When those decisions displease Islam, we get the backlash.
“When people in Denmark draw cartoons of Mohammed, it is shops in Beirut that are destroyed. They say to us, ‘You are the descendants of the Crusaders!’ Whatever your leaders believe, you are considered Christian, and the Christians in the East are blamed.”
Tomorrow: Maronites celebrate a visit from their Patriarch; “We will remember this all our lives.”
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