Christians in the Middle East could be losing their “last foothold” as Lebanon spirals into crisis, the country’s most senior Catholic cleric has said.
Speaking at a video event organised by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture on September 10, Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch, said: “Lebanon, the last Christian foothold in the Middle East, is home for 18 Christian and Muslim confessional communities, living together equal in rights and duties. It is the only democratic secular state in the Arab world. It is an example of unity in diversity.”
But with an economic crisis even before the pandemic, and the August 4 explosion in Beirut which left at least 300,000 homeless, the country is facing an “existential” and unprecedented crisis, he said.
The practice of Christianity in Lebanon is unique in the Middle East. “In all the other Arab countries, Islam is the religion of the state and Christians are not given a chance to state their opinions. There is no such thing as freedom of conscience,” Cardinal Rai said. “If a Christian wants to become a Muslim, that’s fine, but if a Muslim wants to become a Christian, he is liable to be killed. That is why the Lebanese formula is so important,” he added.
Cardinal Rai said the aftermath of the war on Iraq had resulted in the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East. One-and-a-half million Christians lived in the region before the US-led invasion of Iraq. One million Christians have been displaced, he said. Although some priests and bishops remain in the region, Christian schools, hospitals and universities are no longer operable.
“As a result, the impact of Christianity on society has disintegrated. That is why we are so keen on keeping Lebanon as a strong country,” Cardinal Rai said.
“The weakening of the Christian community in Lebanon would be a huge loss for the country, the Middle East and, indeed the world,” he said.
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