Stay in Lebanon: Maronite Archbishop begs his flock

The Catholic Maronite Archbishop of Tyre, whose Archeparchy was hard hit in the recent Lebanon-Israel war, has called on Christians to stay in their villages near the Israeli border as a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel.

"The most important thing is to stay on this land," Archbishop Chucrallah-Nabil El-Hage told a standing-room congregation on Sunday at St George's Church in this southern Lebanese village, according to a USA Today report.

"Wherever you are - in Hajji or Tyre or Marjayoun - if you're patient and believe, you'll make it through this," he said.

Since last month, the 63-year-old Archbishop has braved clashes between Israeli forces and the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah, racing over cratered roads and bombed-out bridges to visit his flock in the few Christian towns and villages that dot predominantly Shiite southern Lebanon.

The exact number of Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon is a mystery. A census could be politically explosive in Lebanon, bringing calls by Muslims to do away with a system that awards Christians the country's presidency and half the seats in the parliament.

Since the end of Lebanon's 16-year civil war in 1991, Christians have steadily lost power to Shiite and Sunni Muslims, whose populations have grown.

The threat of a Christian exodus could upset the delicate balance of power and prompted Archbishop El-Hage to action.

A string of Maronite villages along Lebanon's southern border, towns such as Debel, Rmaich and Ain Ebel, is in a particularly tight pot: sandwiched between Hezbollah-controlled towns slightly north and the heavily fortified Israeli border just to the south.

Archbishop El-Hage has worked for years to keep the villages populated. He said Maronites act as a peaceful buffer between two warring entities.

On Sunday, he was careful to avoid blaming Hezbollah or Israel. "The Christian message is the same everywhere: a message of peace, a message of love and a message of tolerance," he said. "Even if we have different beliefs, it doesn't mean it should lead to conflict."

Meanwhile the Washington Post reports that Pope Benedict has expressed dismay that the conflict in the Middle East has persisted for so long and lamented a lack of dialogue to bring lasting peace, according to messages released yesterday by the Vatican.

"In this moment of profound trouble, the thoughts of the Holy Father are with the Holy Land and the Middle East regions," he said in the message.

Meanwhile, Catholic News Service reports that the Pope also appealed for the release of a Chaldean Catholic priest who was kidnapped in Baghdad, Iraq, just after celebrating Mass on 15 August.

Masked kidnappers forced Fr Saad Sirop Hanna, 34, to stop his car, then they took him away, Vatican Radio reported on Friday. Fr Hanna works at St Jacob Parish in Dora, one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Fr Philip Najim, the Rome-based representative of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate of Baghdad, confirmed the report.

There still was no news about Fr Hanna, F Najim said.

Archbishop tells church to stay in Lebanon: 'You'll make it' (USA Today, 20/8/06)
Pope Laments Length of Mideast Conflict (Washington Post, 21/8/06)
Pope appeals for release of priest kidnapped in Baghdad (Catholic News Service, 21/8/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Caritas Australia

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22 Aug 2006