BEIRUT: Patriarch Beshara Rai leaves for Washington Monday at the head of a delegation of Eastern church patriarchs to attend a conference on protecting the Christian presence in the Levant, sources in Bkirki said Tuesday. The conference, sponsored by an American NGO, will draw senior Middle Eastern Christian figures and American officials in Washington, D.C., next week.
Rai returned to Beirut Tuesday following a few days’ visit to the Vatican, where he met with Pope Francis to brief him on the results of last month’s conference of the heads of Eastern churches held at the Maronite patriarch’s summer seat in Diman, to discuss threats facing the Christian presence in the Levant by Al-Qaeda-linked groups. The conference appealed to the international community to act quickly to stop attacks on Christians by takfiris in Iraq and Syria.
Rai did not speak to reporters at Beirut airport and headed straight to Bkirki, north of Beirut.
“In addition to the persecution of Christians in the Levant at the hands of Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, Patriarch Rai discussed with the pope all aspects of the Lebanese situation, particularly the presidential election deadlock,” a source in Bkirki told The Daily Star.
“In his talks with officials in Lebanon and abroad, the patriarch stresses that his main concern now is the election of a new president,” the source added.
Parliament failed Tuesday for the 11th time in four months to elect a president over a lack of quorum, raising fears of a prolonged vacancy in the country’s top Christian post.
While in Washington, the conference’s sponsors might arrange meetings with senior U.S. officials, the source said. If he meets U.S. officials, Rai will discuss issues that serve the Christian presence in the Levant.
The first day of the conference will take place at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C., followed by two days at the Capitol building, where Rai and his colleagues will hold talks with U.S. senators and attend lectures on human rights and freedom of belief.
The meetings are aimed at producing a U.S. position on the Christian situation in the Middle East, along with a decision to take concrete steps toward safeguarding the community’s survival under the threat imposed by the rise of fundamentalist groups, the Central News Agency reported. It said that Rai would extend his visit for a few days after the conference to visit several Maronite dioceses in California and Texas.
The Bkirki source did not rule out the possibility of Rai visiting Moscow or also meeting with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in Beirut.
“The patriarch’s meetings in Washington and Moscow and with Sayyed Nasrallah are designed to discuss the persecution of the Christians in the Levant and how to confront terrorism sweeping the region,” the source said.
During his visit to Washington, Rai is heading a delegation of patriarchs that includes Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako.
Rai headed a delegation of the Eastern patriarchs to Iraq last month to show support and solidarity with Iraqi Christians suffering at the hands of ISIS militants in the northern city of Mosul. International alarm has grown over the exodus of Christians from Iraq after ISIS seized large swaths of the country following its capture of Mosul in June.