Patriarch Urges Unity in Lebanon

Interview With Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir

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By Tony Assaf

ROME, NOV. 3, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Divisions have never served for anything, says the Maronite patriarch of Antioch. And he urged Christians in Lebanon to overcome factions and unite.

This is the message from Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir given in this interview with ZENIT after the cardinal had participated in the world Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.

Q: In your words, the synod spoke of hope, a hope linked both to the presence of Christians in Lebanon and to interreligious dialogue within the country. What are the real and concrete elements of this hope?

Cardinal Sfeir: Before all else, we are believers. One who believes has hope and should take care of the virtue of hope, as well as the virtue of faith. It is not possible for us to trust in hope directly. We have been in the East since the beginning of Christianity, and if we are still here it is because of the will of God.

Naturally, the situation has changed. Past years, perhaps, were more difficult than the current ones. For 500 years we looked for protection under the Turkish presence and despite everything, Maronites and Christians have maintained unity in the East. We still live difficult times and no one can deny this. Many emigrate and go to far off countries. They are in Australia, South Africa, the United States and in Arabic countries, such as Qatar, where we were last May.

The situation is ever more difficult for the youth, especially in these days. They acquire high-level training, earning diplomas and certificates, but they don't find work. Thus, they decide to go to other countries, either close ones, such as the Arabic nations, or far ones, such as the United States, or others. One who emigrates to a nearby country perhaps one day comes home, but it is difficult for those who go far to return.

Q: During the general assembly of the synod, the role of the laity in the understanding and profession of the Gospel was spoken of. What plan is the Maronite Church considering so that these decisions and proposals don't just stay on paper?

Cardinal Sfeir: Naturally, the laity has a role in the work of the Church and in the fulfillment of the faith, but it is not possible to say right now what means we will use to involve the laity. This discussion merits reflection and a solution involving the bishops in their general meeting.

Q: The Christians of the Middle East suffer, especially in Lebanon, Iraq and the Holy Land. Can we speak of a persecuted Church or of the persecuted part of the Church in general? What is your message for the Church of the West and what role it can play in this situation?

Cardinal Sfeir: The Church is the same everywhere, both in the East and in the West. The fact that Christians in the East face difficulties is nothing new. As I already mentioned, the Christians have passed nothing less than 500 years under the Turks, without being able to freely profess their faith, and still today this reality subsists. Emigration is spoken of. The faithful emigrate, without knowing if this situation will change or remain indefinitely. There is a proverb that says: "God doesn't change people as long as the heart remains the same."

We feel great sadness for the Christians in Lebanon, divided among themselves. They should unite their factions and take up a united position. Even today, among them, there are those who maintain that it is a useful situation, but divisions have never served for anything.

Q: How do you foresee that the synod of bishops will influence Christians and their situation in the Near East?

Cardinal Sfeir: The synod has a good impact on Christians. The whole synod is trying to regroup the various Christian realities and guide them toward the profession of the faith. The faith is something that invites us to the fear of Our Lord, and he who fears Our Lord acts according to his commandments, and puts effort into consolidating the relationship with him and with one's neighbors. There is not faith without love for neighbor. If there was not love for neighbor, faith would not be sincere.

Q: In your interventions in the synod, you affirmed that the situation of Christians in Lebanon is ever more difficult, with a reduction in their number, year after year. Have you directed a message to the powerful of Lebanon and the world to prevent that the situation, which the country has been experiencing for four years, continues to deteriorate?

Cardinal Sfeir: The message that we launch from Lebanon is the same message we launch from here. We invite all Christians to harmony, to understanding, to help and reciprocal aid. Unfortunately, the current situation is not the one we desire. The Lebanese are divided in their ethnicities, because of external motives. Among the people, there are those in favor of one country and those in favor of another. This causes divisions to increase and makes the path to reaching agreement more difficult.

Q: "Return to Lebanon, even if it is just for a few days." These are the words you have directed to the Lebanese of Rome. How can expatriated Christians who have built a new life in a foreign land respond to this invitation? Is it possible for them to return to live in Lebanon without ruining everything they have built? What guarantees do they have, given the current conditions in Lebanon?

Cardinal Sfeir: We are not inviting them to a definitive return to Lebanon, but to visit it like they would visit any other country. For a month, for example, as is typical here in Rome. We have seen many visitors arrive to Rome and invade the streets and plazas. They could go to Lebanon, the country of their birth, for a few days, given that, as I've said, the conditions don't permit a definitive return.

Q: We know that the positions of the patriarch are taken into great consideration in Lebanon. What do you base your interventions and interviews on? Where do you base your decisions and how they are presented?

Cardinal Sfeir: We base ourselves, before all else, in God, who has invited us to fulfill this role. We base ourselves moreover in the truth that we openly communicate to people. Among these, there are those who become indignant, and those who are happy [to hear it]. We do not have the intention to irritate or make joyful. Rather we say the truth without taking into account any position.

Q: Everyone is talking about the elections in Lebanon. What guides the Christian voter? What should he base his decisions and preferences on?

Cardinal Sfeir: The Lebanese voter, like one of any other democratic country, should guide himself in favor of the country. He should express his preference for the person who serves the general interests, rather than a private one. If the candidate follows this path, it is the just one. If instead he looks only for personal interests, certainly it will not be a good thing.