Monday was a heady day for the Pittsburgh region’s Maronite Catholics, as Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai paid a visit to St. George Maronite Catholic Church in Uniontown.
His remarks -- most of which came after newspaper deadlines -- were less focused on foreign policy than they had reportedly been during stops in major cities on his U.S. tour. The local priest teased him about any let-down from flying into the Morgantown airport from Hollywood, where he had been on his last stop.
But in unplanned comments -- delivered in Arabic through a translator after his formal English address -- Patriarch Rai spoke of a plan to shore up Lebanon’s diminishing Christian population by seeking citizenship for those who have left the nation and for their children.
Project Roots is seeking people of Lebanese descent outside of Lebanon to register their marriages and the births of their children via its Web site. This isn't only to express solidarity with the mother church and access genealogical records, however. The Maronite Foundation
in Lebanon is seeking a change in the nation’s citizenship law, which would be similar to those in some other countries with large emigrant populations. It seeks full citizenship for emigrants and their descendants. It would give Lebanese ex-patriates the right to vote, and that is critical for Lebanon’s political structure, which assumes a population balance between Muslims and Christians.
“Lebanon is a unique country. Its whole social fabric hinges on a balance between Muslims and Christians," he said. “Christians and Muslims both declared that this country will not have a religion as such, but will respect all religions.”
Its constitution requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament to be a Shi’a Muslim. This is premised on a 50-50 balance of the Christian and Muslim populations. But especially in the wake of the assassination of a prime minister in 2005, followed by social unrest and a war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters on the Lebanese border, many Christians have been leaving, the patriarch said. Christians are now only about 40 percent of the population and he fears that could eventually erode their rights.
“If the million Christians who have left Lebanon don’t register their marriages and offspring, this will be detrimental to the balance we are talking about,” he said.
If Christians lose their political rights and freedom in that nation, he said, “you will be responsible for this because you neglected to register your children. It’s not just the Christians of Lebanon who will lose, but the whole of Christianity in the Middle East. The creative formula of Lebanon as a nation where Christians and Muslims can live together . . . and work together will be lost, not only to Lebanon, but to the world.”
In this extemporaneous talk during a banquet at the Uniontown Country Club, Patriarch Rai also addressed the youth of the church, calling them to set aside triviality and seek greatness. He spoke of Blessed Pope John Paul II and his World Youth Days, in which he called on youth to become prophets to the world.
“Prophets of peace against war, prophets of love against hatred, prophets of purity against promiscuity, prophets of hope against despair, prophets of the culture of life against the culture of death,” Patriarch Rai said.