Leader fears for Middle East Christians

2011-11-02 22:29

Baghdad - The head of Lebanon's Maronite church said he feared for the fate of Christians in the Middle East if the Arab Spring brought "radical groups" to power to replace autocratic leaders.

Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, speaking in Baghdad during the first such visit by a Maronite patriarch, urged Christians not to leave the Middle East.

"I support the spring when it is a spring, not when it is a winter," he told reporters. During his visit, he attended a ceremony marking the first anniversary of an al-Qaeda attack which killed 52 people in a Baghdad church.

"There should be changes in all Arab countries. Dictatorships cannot survive today, we need democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of belief and worship...[But] I fear radical groups might take power and [bring] extremist rule."

He added: "We are with changes in Syria... and with reforms and human rights but we hope the price will not be the same as what happened in Iraq."

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country after years of sectarian conflict.

Attacks on Christians in Egypt after protests toppled Hosni Mubarak in February also highlight the dangers many Christians in Syria fear they will face if protests against President Bashar Assad bring him down.

Church leaders in Syria say they support reforms but not the demands for a "regime change" which they say could fragment Syria and give the upper hand possibly to Islamist groups that would deny them religious freedom.

Lebanon's Maronite church leaders have had tense relations with Syria, and led calls for an end to Syrian military presence in Lebanon in 2005.

But since protests erupted against Assad in March many said Christians enjoyed freedom of belief under Assad's secular Baath Party.

Maronites, who have a presence in Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, follow an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic church and number around 900 000 in Lebanon. Many more Maronites, possibly up to three million, live outside the country.

"We are against any [Christian] migration," Rai said. "We know that all the extremist and terrorist groups and foreign interference aim for this but we have to remain steadfast."

Under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.

Rai said he came to Iraq in a show of support for Iraqi Christians. He urged the Iraqi government to take concrete steps to protect Christians such as silencing voices who call Christians "infidels".

"We ask the Christians [in Iraq] to be patient."

Iraq's Christians, who once numbered 1.5 million out of a total population of about 30 million, had frequently been targeted by militants since the US-led invasion in 2003, with churches bombed and priests assassinated.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  hosni mubarak  |  bashar assad  |  lebanon  |  syria  |  iraq  |  egypt  |  uprisings  |  religion
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