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Lebanese cardinal calls for more help for refugees

A Syrian refugee stands next to a boy inside his tent in late September at the Faydha refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley (CNS photo/Nabil Mounzer, EPA)

Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai has urged Christians and Muslims to work to preserve peaceful coexistence, and for more help for refugees.

In his Christmas Eve address from Bkerke, north of Beirut, Cardinal Rai extended “our best wishes to those who suffer from conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the Holy Land”

Extending his best wishes to “Muslims and Christians, knowing that this year the celebrations of Christmas and the birth of the Prophet coincide,” – Muhammad’s birthday was celebrated on December 23 – he said: “We are determined to perform our duty to confront fanaticism, divisions … and we are keen to preserve coexistence.”

The partiarch reiterated his calls for Lebanon’s political blocs to elect a president “as soon as possible” to move the country “from despair and anxiety to hope and peace”.

Lebanon has been without a president since the term of President Michel Sleiman ended in May 2014. Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the post is held by a Maronite Catholic.

Cardinal Rai emphasized that the Maronite Patriarchate has given policymakers three documents, “road maps … to build a modern constitutional state, capable and productive, based on a healthy democracy and (which) respects the equality of all its citizens”.

The patriarch insisted that the government “fulfill its functions” regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, pointing to “the weight” that the presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees implies for Lebanon, a country about two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut, with an existing Lebanese population of nearly 4 million.

“We stand at the humanitarian level with our refugee brothers,” the patriarch said, but warned that Syrian refugees in Lebanon could be exploited by terrorists or extremist groups to ignite unrest and instability in the country.

The patriarch welcomed a U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed a road map for a peace process to end the nearly five-year-old Syria war, but disagreed with its recommendation for a “voluntary” return of refugees.

“We do not accept the term ‘voluntarily’ because these refugees must return home,” he said.

Lebanon absorbed an influx of Palestinian refugees more than 60 years ago. Currently, there are about 500,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.