While motivated by an understandable desire to connect with Syrian Maronites, the patriarch’s timing in his visit to Damascus was unwise, and arguably divisive, both in Lebanon and across the border.
The visit of Patriarch Beshara Rai was the first of a Maronite patriarch to Syria since the country’s independence almost 70 years ago. Former Patriarch Boutros Sfeir refused to visit due to the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.
Officially undertaken so that Rai could attend the enthronement ceremony of the new patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, John X Yazigi, his visit also coincided with St. Maroun’s day. Both are legitimate reasons, but the timing of Rai’s Damascus trip – while the country is embroiled in a civil war, and when the capital itself has most recently fallen victim to the fighting – is strange to say the least.
Over 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict thus far, and hundreds of thousands more have become internally displaced or forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries, and while Rai’s prayer spoke of the urgent need for peace, his actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, but quite inevitably, his visit has been seized upon by the regime as evidence that the situation in the country is stable and that the government has widespread support, in combination with Rai’s repeated condemnations of external meddling in Syria.
With snipers dotted around the surrounding rooftops Sunday, Rai’s controversial visit can also be argued to be a divisive one. Around 5 percent of the Syrian population is Christian, with 60,000 of those Maronites. Rai’s visit, seen by many in the opposition as a sign of tacit Christian support for the regime, may have now made it that much harder for those Christians who stand against the government to claim just that.
It may also contribute to divisions between specific Christian sects as well, as the actions of one group’s representative may have made life harder for all of them. Indeed over the weekend, reports trickled in of the abduction of several priests across Syria.
As the sound of gunfire and bombardments across Damascus provided a backdrop to Rai’s prayer Sunday, the contents of his message may also appear slightly misplaced. Even to the most optimistic observer, it is hard to see how his calls for dialogue will make any difference, following, as they do, similar calls from virtually every world leader and global organization, and, of course, the pope himself.
Certainly, Rai’s quest for peace is genuine, and his desire to help protect and provide comfort to the followers of his faith is in line with Christianity. But whoever it was who advised on the timing of this trip is playing a potentially dangerous game. In his efforts to protect the Maronite congregation of both Syria and Lebanon, Rai may end up doing more harm than good with this visit, ultimately harming those who he seeks to help.