BEIRUT: Maronite Cardinal Beshara Rai voiced during a historic visit to Syria Saturday solidarity with Syrians and expressed hope for an end to the nearly two-year old conflict.
“[I express solidarity] with all the people who are suffering in Syria,” Rai, who headed a sermon at the Maronite Cathedral of St. Anthony in the Bab Touma district of Damascus, told Lebanon’s National News Agency.
“We pray each day for the end of war and violence and that a unanimous peace may be achieved through cooperation," he added.
Syrian Minister of State Joseph Suweid, representing President Bashar Assad, attended the Mass along with religious figures.
Rai’s visit to Syria, the first by a head of the Maronite Church since Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, comes as the crisis in Syria approaches its second year.
The Lebanese cardinal will attend a ceremony Sunday marking the enthronement of the new patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Patriarch John X Yazigi.
He told Agence France Presse that his trip aimed to show "that there is unity, friendship and cooperation between the Maronite and the Orthodox churches and all the churches in Syria."
Rai, who entered Syria through the Masnaa border crossing, was greeted by religious figures and thousands of Syrians amid tight security measures.
TV footage showed throngs of people flocking to greet the Lebanese religious leader at the Maronite archdiocese in Damascus.
Rai told the NNA that the occasion presented an opportunity “to pray alongside all who are praying for peace, tranquility, the return of the refugees and that a peaceful and diplomatic solution may be found for the problems at hand.”
In comments published Saturday, Bishop Samir Mazloum told Al-Joumhouria newspaper that there was no political dimension to Rai’s visit.
“Rai will visit Syria to participate ... in the official enthronement of Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi just as he participated in the enthronement of Coptic Pope Bishop Tawardos in Egypt,” the bishop said.
He added that Rai would not meet any Syrian officials during his stay.
Local media reported Saturday that the Damascus ceremony would include several religious figures from all sects in order to present a unified front in Syria and affirm the presence of Christians there.
Commenting on the news, President Michel Sleiman said earlier Saturday that Rai’s visit to Damascus should not be politicized, adding that he supported the patriarch’s trip.
“The visit by Rai should not be placed in a political context,” Sleiman told reporters after attending a Mass for St. Maroun Day in Gemmayzeh, Beirut.
“The patriarch is the head of the Maronite Church in Lebanon and the whole East and along with the president represents the guarantor for all Christians in the East,” he added.
Sleiman also said that Yazigi’s responsibility extended beyond Syria to include Lebanon and that “Yazigi and Rai recognize the interests of Christians and how to keep Christians attached to their roots.”
“Yes, I am for the visit,” he said.
John X Yazigi, bishop of Western and Central Europe, was elected Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Levant and Antioch, succeeding Patriarch Hazim Ignatius IV who died in December 2012.
The election took place during a gathering of 18 bishops from Greek Orthodox archbishoprics around the world who met in Lebanon to elect Hazim’s successor.
Like Hazim, Yazigi is also Syrian. He was born in Latakia in 1955. - With AFP