Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, 86, is the patriarch of the worldwide 14-million member Maronite Catholic Church. He was at Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Chicago last week in conjunction with the national convention of the Maronite Catholic Church in the United States. The Maronite Church, present mostly in Lebanon, is an Eastern Rite that is obedient to the Pope but maintains distinctive liturgical traditions.
According to a report in the Chicago Tribute, the main theme of his talk was concern regarding the place of Christians in the Middle East, the relationship between Lebanese Muslims and Christians, and the delicate balance Lebanon faces in being a sovereign state between Syria and Israel.
Continuing unrest in the region and the inability to worship freely are making it more difficult to maintain a Christian presence in Lebanon as in the rest of the Middle East. The majority of Lebanon was once Catholic, but Muslims have recently taken over the majority. Many Lebanese Christians have emigrated over the last four or five decades.
Lebanon is seen by many as a country of hope for Christianity in the Middle East.
"Christians will stay in the Middle East if there is peace," Cardinal Sfeir reportedly told his audience. "If they migrate and go nearby to places like the Arab gulf, for instance, they can come back. But if they migrate to farther places like the United States, it is very difficult to return."
"Lots of Muslims love to have Christians living among them and they want to continue living together without any problems," the cardinal was quoted as saying.
"The ability to live together peacefully will involve each side letting the other worship God in his own manner," he said. "But we have to believe in democracy and in justice. Yet, as you know, there is no peace without justice.”
The cardinal, who has served as patriarch for Maronite Catholics for the last 20 years, also spoke favorably of the role of President George Bush in the removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
.- The spiritual leader for Maronite Catholics worldwide said working together toward democracy in the Middle East will encourage Lebanese citizens to invest in their former homeland and possibly to return when things in the region become more stable.