The Patriarch of Antioch is, for the first time, actually in Antioch. Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai is the first Patriarch to visit the “Patriarchate Kingdom” since its founder, Youhana Maroun.
Rai is the “Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,” and the head of Bkirki in every sense of the word. He does not renege on the Patriarchate’s dogma, having been quoted as saying: “The church goes to its sons, especially those who have become Christians at the hand of Saint Peter.”
It is well known that Antioch, which is located in what is now southern Turkey, is of great importance for Eastern Christians. It was the first patriarchate established by Peter the Apostle, before the patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem.
During his visit to Turkey, where he is scheduled to stay until Saturday (June 30), Rai will visit Adana, Mersin, Iskenderun and Antioch. During the 18th and 19th centuries, these cities witnessed heavy “Maronite migration” from all regions of Lebanon. During this time, Maronite migrants sought to build livelihoods primarily in cotton cultivation — a thriving industry at the time — and in timber. In 1927, the “Foreign Consuls” sent a letter to the Maronite Patriarchate, requesting that a priest be appointed to the newly established parish. The patriarchate appointed an Antioch monk who lived in Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul.
The Maronite endowment has problems with the Turkish state which the patriarchate is currently trying to solve. One bishop said that Rai’s visit to Turkey is to a large extent related to this problem, “including issues relating to the Antonine Order in Mersin, Adana, Iskenderun and Tartous.” Rai will tour the ancient cities as a protector of the Maronite parish, but he will also be open to meeting with other Christians. Christians of these areas are mainly part of the Orthodox and Latin churches.
The most prominent stop in the patriarch’s tour will be in the Church of Saint Peter, where he will celebrate the Latin Mass. Rai will also visit religious touristic sites and hold meetings with Turkish officials, including the governor and mayor in each city he visits.
In his book, Kitab Mu’jam al-Buldan (Dictionary of Countries), Yaqut al-Hamawi writes: “When Arabs are infatuated with something, they liken it to Antioch.” Antioch is the Syrian city that was subordinated to the Syrian county of Iskenderun, before being annexed to Turkey in 1939.
It should be noted that after World War I, Antioch became a part of Syria. It was then ruled by the Syrians following the Ottomans’ withdrawal from the Arab world. Nevertheless, under the French mandate in Syria between 1920 and 1946, the French government decided to annex Iskenderun to Turkey, including the city of Antioch.
The Maronite presence in this area is sparse. In Iskenderun, for instance, there are only roughly 30 Maronites. The "biggest gathering” was planned by the Maronite Diaspora Institution and the Maronite League, which organized an expanded tour that would follow the Patriarch’s visit to Turkey. A number of priests will join the tour, including Monsignors Nasser Gemayel and Edgard Madi. Charles Hajj, a member of the Board of Trustees in the Maronite Institution, the Foreign Relations Official in the institution, Antonio Andari, and many Maronite figures including Camil Mansa, Gabi Jibrayel, Roger Edde, Bechara Namour, Amal Abou Zed and Sarkis Sarkis will take part in the tour. They want to witness the visit of the Patriarch, where the “rock of Bkirki” will return to the land of the “rock of the Church.” Thirty journalists will also be following the tour.
Before his departure from Beirut’s airport yesterday [June 27], Rai delivered a speech, and was seen off by Turkish ambassador to Lebanon Inan Azoheldez. Rai said that the his visit to Turkey is of a religious nature due to the occasion of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s day on June 29. The tour’s program will be limited to mass celebrations and meetings with local officials.
Rai said that Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed that he will visit Lebanon between September 14 and September 16. The Pope will sign and declare the “Apostolic Exhortation,” which is closely related to the Church in the Middle East.
“Our visit to Turkey will be conducted in preparation for the visit of His Holiness the Pope and the declaration of the Apostolic Exhortation. We seek peace and welfare for all people, away from bloodshed and violence. I call for a Christian Spring, in which Christians are to commit to their values in their communities and lead their lives as dutiful believers alongside their Muslim brothers, so that we can build homelands based on common Islamic and Christian values,” said Rai.
The Patriarch talked highly about his recent meeting with the March 14 Camp, which was held in Bkirki. He stated: “I expressed my gratitude for the March 14 delegation having visited Bkirki seen as the people are tired of rifts and divisions. We in [Bkirki] continue to be devoted to our ‘partnership and love,’ and we do not wish to be an impediment to anyone. We declare our loyalty to all Lebanese, of all sects, colors, parties and political tendencies. Bkirki is with all of them. We respect everyone, and we wish the best to all. It would be great if we join hands to build this ‘partnership and love.’ I am closest to my brothers who are Lebanese, no matter who they are. Therefore, I thank the March 14 delegation for their lovely visit. They came to shed light on all the ambiguous issues we face, and we embarked on a new chapter in the hope that all Lebanese will come together.”
With regard to the National Dialogue, Rai saluted the president and urged him to “bring more figures together.” “We urgently need security and peace. Lebanon is witnessing a great deal of lawbreaking, and this situation must not drag on. What a shame! Have we not learned our lesson from all those years of war? The state and its military institutions ought to preserve security and stability in Lebanon, especially during the summer so that Lebanese immigrants and tourists would be able to come and enjoy Lebanon without being intimated by burning tires, banditry and unrest. The state must assume this role to the fullest. We applaud the state’s role and responsibility in preserving stability. May Lebanon continue to thrive and may it become an oasis of welfare and peace for all people. Let us join hands in preserving our homeland.”
Rai also expressed his hopes that “the Lassa incident [regarding a Shiite-Maronite land dispute] would not be turned into a sectarian or political issue, as it is a real-estate and judicial matter. We requested that the Patriarchal Vicariate in Jounieh provide all necessary documents in this regard. We also urge those who have legal documents proving that they own a land lot to submit them, so that this issue will not be politicized and will remain within a legal framework.”