(Vatican Radio) Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai of Lebanon is one of six Church leaders to be made Cardinal in the upcoming November 24th Consistory. Tracey McClure caught up with the Cardinal-elect at the end of Wednesday’s session of the Synod for the New Evangelization. In a wide-ranging interview with her, the Patriarch speaks of the announcement that a papal delegation will be sent to neighboring Syria in coming days and the tension in Lebanon following last week’s assassination of a high ranking security official in a Beirut bombing that killed 3 people and wounded more than 80 others.
Recalling Pope Benedict’s September visit to Lebanon where he challenged regional leaders to allow freedom of religion and conscience, the Patriarch points out that while Christians are encouraged to convert to Islam, Muslims in the Middle East are not free to change their religion.
“Because freedom of conscience is not recognized, there are many secret conversions to Christianity in Lebanon and in Arab countries…we continue to insist, on every occasion, on the need for freedom of conscience and the separation of religion and state.”
Nomination to Cardinal
When asked how he received the news of his nomination to the College of Cardinals, Patriarch Rai said, “Really, I received the news with great emotion and at the same time I wanted to conform to the intentions of the Holy Father: that is, for a greater love for Christ and for the Church and for a more effective apostolate in Lebanon and the Middle East. I would like to thank the Holy Father and offer my heartfelt sentiments to him and I hope I can carry out my mission in the best way possible within the College of Cardinals.”
Listen to the extended interview with Patriarch Bechara Rai:
Syria, Lebanon and Muslim-Christian relations
Q: It was announced that the Synod fathers and the Pope will be sending a delegation to Syria in the coming days. Given the failure of past efforts at diplomacy, what do you hope they can realistically achieve?
A: As the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Fr. Lombardi, the Director of the Holy See’s Press Office announced, the Pontifical delegation that will be sent to Syria is an initiative to express solidarity with the people of Syria and to appeal for peace and mostly for reconciliation.
The gesture in itself will bring hope to all those suffering from the tragic situation there, especially Christians. It is a concrete way of showing the Church cares and desires to see peace in Syria achieved through dialogue and internal agreement, condemning any recourse to violence and war. Finally, the Church is working to promote national reconciliation.
For its part, the Holy See will continue to follow diplomatic efforts with interested states to reach a just, balanced and enduring peace and national reconciliation.
Q: You hosted Pope Benedict in Lebanon in September for his pastoral visit bringing to the Middle East’s bishops the conclusions of their 2010 Synod. What lasting impact, if any, has that visit made on the people of Lebanon – at a political level and in Christian/Muslim relations ?
A. The Pope’s visit brought Lebanon onto the world stage as a country of peace and coexistence among cultures and religions. It gave great hope to Christians and Muslims. The Pope’s discourses highlighted the significance of Lebanon, its role and its mission in the Middle East as an example of peace, tranquillity and encounter.
The discourses of the President of the Republic also demonstrated the political efforts of the Lebanese to fulfil this role and mission. I, as Patriarch, will follow these efforts to see they are carried out. Unfortunately, last Friday’s bombing and its tragic consequences in Achrafieh-Beirut created great tension in the country, particularly among Muslims. But political tension already exists between Sunnis and Shiites on a national level as well as in Syria and regionally – the same as between Sunnis and Alawites in Lebanon in relation to the events in Syria.
Q. In Lebanon, the Pope delivered the Apostolic Exhortation concluding the 2010 synod for the Middle East. How do you expect to implement this document as a tool in the new evangelization?
A. The Apostolic Exhortation will be put into practice on the level of every Church and on the level of the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops both in Lebanon and across the countries of the Middle East. One week-long session will be held in Lebanon with this focus at the beginning of next December. We will examine ways to implement the Exhortation at the same time consulting the Recommendations and the Message of the Synod for the New Evangelization.
Q. The theme of this synod is “the new evangelization.” Synod fathers are discussing ways to revitalize Catholics in their faith but also how to evangelize non-believers. How can Church leaders and the faithful go about this in the Middle East where not everyone is free to change his or her religion?
A. The New Evangelization in the Middle East will be carried out with new fervour and a profound examination of conscience through Catholic Schools and Universities, and through hospitals and social institutions – all of which are open to Muslims and Christians. So, the Evangelization will be carried out based on Christian culture, life witness, and with the spreading of Christian values as well as through the dialogue of daily life and dialogue with intellectuals, politicians and with the world of culture in Academic circles and institutes. It is important for us to inculturate Christian values in Middle Eastern societies. Because freedom of conscience is not recognized, there are many secret conversions to Christianity in Lebanon and in Arab countries.
Q. During his visit to Lebanon, the Pope made repeated appeals for the recognition of the equal rights of Christians in region and the right to freedom of conscience for all. These exist in Lebanon already. What reaction have you heard from other Christian and Muslim leaders in the region to the Pope’s message ?
A. The message of the Pope finds great resonance among Christians. As far as Muslims are concerned, they did not react to the question of freedom of conscience as far as I know. However, freedom of conscience is denied to Muslims whereas they encourage and facilitate the conversion of Christians to Islam. We continue to insist, on every occasion, on the need for freedom of conscience and the separation of Religion and State.