12 January 2023, The Tablet

Lebanese Church leader calls for repatriation of Syrian refugees

Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi said that his country is struggling to cope with the numbers of refugees fleeing there.

Lebanese Church leader calls for repatriation of Syrian refugees

Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, is one of the most significant public voices in Lebanon.
Aid to the Church in Need/CNA

Hundreds of Thousands of Syrian refugees who are destabilising the state of Lebanon and jeopardising its future as a balanced community of Christians and Muslims should be repatriated, the head of the Maronite Church has said. 

During a visit to Britain where he met church leaders and government officials, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Raï, who is based in Lebanon and is Patriarch of Antioch, said that the country is struggling to cope with the continuing numbers of who cross the border into Lebanon from Syria, as well as Palestinians from Israel.

“The presence of more than a million and a half Syrian refugees who emigrated and were displaced since 2011 have multiplied and turned into a heavy burden economically and financially on a country already in deep crisis,” the patriarch told a press conference in London on Tuesday, warning that they “have now become a real demographic, political and security threat”.

“We ask that they be repatriated to their country Syria to protect it and rebuild it”.

Patriarch al-Raï explained that 99 per cent of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims. The country’s constitution has been set up to ensure a confessionalist system proportionally dividing seats between its Christian and Muslim communities with parliamentary seats divided between the two as well as the Druze.

But now, with many Christians leaving the country and Syrian Muslim refugees as well as half a million Palestinians fleeing to Lebanon from across the Israeli border, the balance between the faiths is in jeopardy.

“The refugees are getting free education, hospitals and water and they don’t pay any taxes. We are having to support them. This is the explosive reality,” said Patriarch al-Raï. “We are not against these people. They are living in misery. They need to go back to their own countries but the international community is not helping.”

Patriarch al-Raï heads the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon and at a time when Lebanon has no president, has become the country’s leading voice. He was speaking during his first-ever visit to the United Kingdom, organised by the charity Fellowship and Aid to Christians of the East.

He met members of the Maronite Church and celebrated Mass. He also held talks with church leaders, including Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham and Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. He also met Lord Tariq Ahmad, Minister of State for the Middle East, Dame Sarah MacIntosh, deputy National Security Adviser, with responsibility for the Middle East and parliamentarians.

During his meetings Patriarch al-Raï emphasised the importance of maintaining Lebanon’s pluralism which, he said, makes it a model of Christian-Islamic coexistence in the Middle East.

As well as the instability caused by a country with a population of just under six million hosting two million refugees, Lebanon is enduring rampant inflation, the aftermath of the 2020 explosion that destroyed the port of the capital, Beirut and a continuing brain drain of middle class professionals such as doctors – something that particularly effects the Christian population.

Patriarch al-Raï has reiterated his appeal to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to call an urgent summit to discuss the crisis facing Lebanon. Since he first submitted a formal memorandum a year ago to Guterres for the summit, Guterres has confirmed the request to the UN. Patriarch al-Raï has appealed to the UN to devise a solution to the Palestinian problem, help to enable displaced Syrians to return to their country and to confirm Lebanon’s neutrality through a Security Council declaration.

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