.- Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai of Antioch, the head of the Maronite Catholic Church, has warned that the armed conflict in Syria is affecting neighboring Lebanon and could trigger a major conflict in the country.
“The civil war in Syria between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority has already begun to have an impact on the Sunnis and Alawites in north Lebanon, in Tripoli and Akkar,” he told Aid to the Church in Need.
The Lebanese are split into “supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of the opposition,” he said. The ongoing political conflict between Lebanon’s anti-Assad Sunnis and the pro-Assad Shiites will “become more pronounced due to the events in Syria.”
In response, he urged Lebanese Christians to become “more united” and meet their responsibilities.
“After all, based on their culture and mental attitude they always strive for peace, progress and the values of modernity. They love peace and fight for justice,” he said. “They are willing to live together and cooperate with Muslims, without prejudices and ulterior motives.”
For 17 months, rebels opposed to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad have battled government forces in a conflict that has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
Rebel forces have advanced on the airport of the strategic city Aleppo and have been fighting in Damascus.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are helping arm the rebels, the Associated Press reports. The rebel forces include factions of the terrorist group Al Qaida.
The Assad government is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot of Islam distinct from the Shiite and Sunni branches. The government is an ally of Iran and has the backing of the Iran-linked militant group Hezbollah.
Some rebel factions have targeted Christians, bombed churches and driven them from their homes, under the reasoning that they are likely Assad supporters.
The possible deterioration of peace in Lebanon has prompted the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain to recommend that their nationals in Lebanon leave the country.
Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry also issued a similar warning “in anticipation of a spill-over from the Syrian Crisis.”
The patriarch said that Maronite Catholics in Syria are not being spared the violence of the conflict, but there are no direct attacks on them because “they are respected and do not interfere in politics.”
Patriarch Rai said that the rise of Islamist action will “absolutely not” end the Christian presence in the Middle East because most Muslims respect Christian contributions to society.
“The Muslims themselves recognize the importance of the presence of Christians due to their intellectual, moral and vocational qualities,” he said. “Also their respect for the law, their loyalty to the country and government authorities, without interfering in policy where the particular regime is theocratic, is also respected.”
The patriarch, who heads a branch of the Catholic Church that is in full communion with Rome, said he expects Pope Benedict XVI to address relations with Muslims and other faiths in September during his visit to Lebanon.
Pope Benedict’s apostolic exhortation concerning the 2010 Synod in the Middle East is set to be released during his visit.
Patriarch Rai said the letter will “inspire hope and encourage the peoples of the Middle East to intensify their unity and efforts at living together and to play their role within the Arab and international community.”