BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai left for Iraq Monday where he led a mass at the Our Lady of Salvation church on the first anniversary of an attack that left 58 people dead. Rai was accompanied by Bishop Camille Zaidan and Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan.
“It is necessary that we go together [with Younan] to Baghdad to express solidarity with the Iraqi people, the entire Iraqi people who definitely reject violence and war,” Rai told reporters at Rafik Hariri International Airport prior to his departure.
“And also to express our solidarity and brotherhood with our Christian brothers and with the victims of the families to whom the church is very close,” Rai added.
The Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad was attacked by gunmen on Oct. 31 last year, leaving at least 58 people dead, including two priests.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgent group, the “Islamic State of Iraq,” claimed responsibility for the attack.
The visit also aims to encourage Christians in Iraq to stay in the country, Rai said.
“We tell the families of victims and our Christian people in Iraq to continue the message of love, reconciliation and peace … for which they paid a high price,” Rai said.
Many Iraqi Christians have fled their country as they became targets of attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups, in violence that swept the country after it was occupied by the U.S.-led alliance in 2003.
During a visit to France in September, Rai expressed concern over the fate of Christians in Syria if Islamists rise to power in the country.
“We will tell Iraq and the international community that nations cannot be built and people cannot coexist except with peace, justice, truth and love,” Rai explained.
The head of the Maronite church denied some media reports that he was advised not to make his trip to Iraq for security reasons.
“Everybody congratulated me and Patriarch Younan on this trip,” he said.
Bidding farewell at Rafik Hariri International Airport was Environment Minister Nazem Khoury on behalf of President Michel Sleiman, along with a number of officials.
Rai is expected to hold talks with a number of Iraqi officials before his return home Wednesday evening. His visit prompted the postponement of the Council of Maronite Bishops’ meeting.