Doreen Abi Raad CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, pictured in a 2015 file photo. (Credit: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters via CNS.)
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders, meeting with the president of Switzerland, appealed to the international community to work toward peace in the region and to ensure the “dignified” return of refugees to their homelands.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics, hosted Swiss President Alain Berset at Diman, the patriarchal summer residence in northern Lebanon Aug. 28.
“This presence of high Muslim and Christian dignitaries clearly reflects the uniqueness of Lebanon as a country of convergence and interfaith dialogue,” Rai said in welcoming Berset.
“In these difficult times, the countries of the Middle East are well aware of the fact that such cooperation and coexistence between Christians and Muslims is a beacon of hope for the peoples of this tormented region,” the cardinal said.
Those attending included Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan; Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II; Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X – all of whom were born in Syria – Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia for the Armenian Orthodox Church; Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, papal nuncio to Lebanon; Mohammad Sammak, secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue; Muslim and Druze representatives, as well as Swiss diplomats.
“We appeal to the international community to shoulder its responsibility and strive to put an end to the ongoing conflicts and wars and to ensure the dignified return of the Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrians, Iraqis and others to their country,” Rai told the Swiss president.
Lebanon, a country of about 4 million, is host to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring war-torn Syria. In addition, thousands of Iraqi Christians who were uprooted from their homes in Iraq’s Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State organization, and 500,000 Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war also are in Lebanon.
“This right of return must be a priority,” Rai continued, regarding the refugee presence in Lebanon.
“It is their right as citizens to preserve their culture and civilization and to continue to write their history. Therefore, the question of their return should not be linked to political solutions that may take years and years,” particularly as they relate to the interests of various regional and international powers, the Lebanese cardinal continued.
For his part, Berset said, “My visit to Lebanon is a sign of support for this country at a time when the Middle East is witnessing a hostile, weakened” situation.
“Spiritual leaders have a great responsibility toward each other to denote the path of dialogue, exchange and peace. We know very well how rugged this road is and the difficulties it faces,” Berset continued.
“Lebanon is a world center for civilizations and for dialogue between religions and people,” Berset affirmed to the religious leaders.
“This visit also aims to remind Lebanon that it is not alone concerned with the refugees and the displaced,” Berset told the gathering. He noted that the previous day he had met with Lebanon’s president, the house speaker and other officials “only to confirm our concern about helping Lebanon.”