Mideast church leaders look to U.S., but want voice in own destiny

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

By Barb Fraze

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Two prominent Mideast church leaders
told a U.S. audience that they were looking to the United States for leadership to
obtain peace in the Middle East.

“We look to America to lead the international community
in so many ways,” said Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch.

At an Oct. 24 media conference kicking off the In Defense of Christians
Summit in Washington, the cardinal and Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch and all the East told a crowded room of church leaders, politicians and media at the
National Press Club that Middle East residents were looking for the United
States to push for peace, especially in their region.

The Oct. 24-26 summit centers on
the theme of “American Leadership and Securing the Future of Christians in
the Middle East.”

Cardinal Rai said people in the Middle East were
looking to America to help solve the humanitarian crisis that is enveloping
Lebanon: 1.7 million Syrian refugees, who have been coming for more than six
years; half a million Palestinians, who have been in the country for 69 years;
“and many Iraqis.”

Yet he and Patriarch John insisted that Middle Eastern nations
must be involved in coming up with a solution.

“We hope the Palestinian crisis will be resolved soon,
but not at the expense of Lebanon,” said Cardinal Rai, emphasizing that Lebanon
needs to be involved in negotiations.

He noted that his country has been at
peace for years, but that peace is fragile. Many Lebanese have said the number
of refugees in Lebanon — proportionately equivalent to about 150 million
people coming to the United States and needing care — is straining that peace,
as well as the nation’s infrastructure and resources.

Lebanon’s proximity to conflict zones and its hospitality
have made it a haven for those fleeing violence. Southern Lebanon shares a
border with Israel. Eastern and northern Lebanon borders Syria; from Damascus,
Syria, to the border with Lebanon is only 15 miles.

Cardinal Rai said that, throughout history, “many of
our challenges came from outside Lebanon.”

“We have been abandoned to solve the problems we did
not create,” he said.

“We have a long tradition of pluralism in the Middle
East,” he said, but that has eroded in recent years.

Patriarch John also emphasized the need for people of the
Middle East to be involved in peace negotiations.

“I daresay that if we are talking about our destiny in
our land, we have something to say,” he said, noting that people do not
want terms dictated to them. People want “our right to express on our
destiny and our own plight.”

“Living in security and peace is a right of people of
all the world,” said Patriarch John, noting that the hands of terrorism
were stretching to Europe. However, he said, church leaders wanted Middle
Easterners, especially Christians, to be able to return to their homelands.

Without specifically mentioning the exodus of Middle East
refugees to Western nations, Cardinal Rai said people always speak of refugees living
in human dignity, yet countries closed their borders and left families in the
rain and the cold. He asked if it was enough to give a family a tent and food.

“If they really want human dignity, the first thing
they have to do is stop the war” and allow people to return to their
countries, he said.

Both church leaders emphasized that Christians in the Middle
East were working together, through groups like the Middle East Council of
Churches, but also with Muslim leaders. Responding to a question about the
creation of safe zones for Christians in various countries, they said they did
not want to be split from their neighbors.

“We want Lebanon to be one Lebanon, and one Syria,
united, and one united Iraq,” said Patriarch John.

The summit includes an ecumenical prayer service and
multiple seminars, with policy advocates and politicians, as well as speakers
from the Middle East.

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to be the keynote
speaker at a banquet Oct. 25. Participants will travel to Capitol Hill Oct. 26
to lobby congressional leaders and speak with administration officials.

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Follow Fraze on Twitter: @BFraze.

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