The Middle East must not lose its Christian population, cautions the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East

Paris, 25 April—Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, met UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, on Saturday at the Organization's headquarters in Paris. The Patriarch gave a lecture entitled “The role of Middle Eastern Christians in Promoting a Culture of Peace.” It was delivered to UNESCO’s diplomatic corps, including Ambassador Khalil Karam, Permanent Delegate of Lebanon to UNESCO, and representatives of the Lebanese community of Paris.

In a bilateral meeting with the Director-General, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai stressed his deep concern about the situation of Christians in the Orient. In Reference to the many conflicts in the region, the Patriarch declared that “culture is becoming ever more of a weapon of war in the name of a misguided interpretation of religion.”  Ms. Bokova and the Cardinal exchanged concerns regarding “the decline of the human spirit because of the intensification of conflict.” The Cardinal warned that political importance was given to the economy, security and defense to the detriment of “moderation and the human spirit.” 

“In the name of the values that unite us, humanity must remain our main point of reference,” Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai said. He also spoke about the situation in Lebanon where a population of four million people has taken in two million refugees. “We must absolutely have peace talks to make it possible for the refugees to envisage returning to their lands.” 

For her part, the Director-General stressed the central role of UNESCO in discussions concerning intercultural rapprochement. She highlighted the importance of religious leaders using spiritual authority to promote inter-faith and intercultural dialogue. At the end of the meeting, the Cardinal presented the Director-General with a medal of the Maronite Patriarchate. 

The Patriarch then addressed a large audience in UNESCO's main auditorium and called for the protection of Christians in the Orient from rising extremism. 

The Chair of the Executive Board, Ambassador Mohammed Sameh Amr, stressed that “culture is the vehicle of our interaction with one another” and said “there could be no peace without culture.” He added that “in our ever more diverse societies, it is crucial to ensure harmonious interaction among cultures and to celebrate the richness of our diversity in the spirit of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.” 

Ambassador Karam spoke of the Christians’ presence in the Middle East over thousands of years. He also described the visit of the Patriarch to UNESCO on the occasion of the Organization’s 70th anniversary as a harbinger of great hope. 

In her speech, the Director-General declared that “UNESCO is deeply convinced that every woman, man and child represents a chance for peace and dialogue, provided they are raised to respect all cultures and human rights, if they experience the diversity of peoples, the better to understand them.” 

“We can offer a different message to counter hate mongers who seek to pit communities against one another by falsifying the teaching of religion and of history,” Ms. Bokova declared. “We must say that intercultural dialogue is possible, that our destinies are interconnected and that civilizations have always been enriched by entering into contact with one another, sometimes painfully, but most often in peace, through commerce and dialogue.” 

In his lecture, the Patriarch insisted on the need to protect the Christian communities of the region, because they are under attack in several countries. “I have come to testify to the immense and inexpressible sufferings of those who are persecuted for their faith, whose identity is degraded,” the Patriarch declared, saying he was “lending his voice to those who have been silenced.” 

“The flight of Christians from their countries because of war, conflict, economic crises and, in some cases, persecution, is depriving the Middle East of irreplaceable agents of peace and development. It will also weaken the role of moderate Muslims who still account for the majority of Middle Eastern Muslims,” the Patriarch said. 

Cardinal Boutros Rai then added that “social and humanitarian conditions have become terrible, with millions of victims and displaced populations scattered in different countries in the region. This problem will only be solved with the solidarity of the international community and its effective intervention to end fighting, encourage the return of refugees to their countries, and the complete restitution of their properties and rights.”

The Patriarch then thanked the Director-General and UNESCO for providing educational projects for the benefit of young displaced persons in the region and for taking measures to protect threatened heritage sites. 

“Threats have changed since 1945, but their nature remains the same… exclusive ideologies… cultural and ethnic cleansing… racism, discrimination and violence… We need to reinvent how to build peace,” Ms Bokova added. She went on to speak about the efforts undertaken by Lebanon to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries.