He was one of the last to land in Rome but he got to work immediately alongside the other cardinals. On Wednesday, March 06, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Bechara Raï, handed cardinals with a dossier on the situation of Christians in the Middle East: “The universal Church and the next Pope must never forget that Christianity has its origins in the Middle East. And they should keep in mind what is happening to Christian communities in the Middle East. This is a priority that cannot be ignored,” the Lebanese cardinal said.
Your Holiness, as leader of the Church in the Middle East, what would you say the region’s Christians expect from the Conclave?
I wouldn’t say everyone is thinking about what has happened over the past few years. A million and a half Christians have fled from post-Saddam Iraq. And at least 60% have left Aleppo. There is not one Christian left in Homs. The Coptic Church in Egypt is still strong. But with the new Sharia-based laws, things are going to get much harder. Then there are the problems in the Holy Land… Cardinals will also need to take this into consideration during the Conclave. If we only discuss the Church’s internal problems we risk being one-track minded. This is why I have handed out a dossier on the current condition of Christians in the Middle East to cardinals. Christians have been there for two thousand years. They have helped shape local civilization and culture. They have transmitted a sense of moderation to Islam. Real Islam is moderate. It is not that which is preached by fundamentalists whom Eastern and Western countries load up with arms and money out of political and economic interest.
How did Lebanon react to the news of Benedict XVI’s resignation?
Everyone saw it as an act of strong and humble faith and self-denial. A “Kenosis”. Muslims were full of admiration. Some of them asked themselves: what is Christianity? The man who holds the highest position in the Catholic Church voluntarily stepped down! It was also seen as an example by laymen: he showed that one’s responsibilities, whichever these may be, should be faced with an honest conscience.
Before you came to Rome for the Conclave you were in Moscow. What were the expectations expressed there?
I was invited by Moscow’s patriarch, Kirill. We spoke for hours about the situation faced by Christians in the Middle East and the possibility for collaboration on a cultural, religious and social level; we also talked about the promotion of unity between Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the Middle East for the good of the region and about how to create awareness of the Christian faith among Muslims. I was glad to see the Russian Orthodox Church is blossoming again: the Church has 184 dioceses across the world and the Patriarch ordained 60 bishops in the space of just a few years. I also met the Chairman of the State Duma, Sergej Naryshkin, and his advisors: what is happening in the Middle East today has nothing to do with the advent of democracy. The political interests of external powers are trying to destabilize the entire area, fomenting inter-confessional conflicts among Muslims. And when chaos breaks out, the Christians killed are often innocent victims.
You are one of the four leaders of Eastern Catholic Churches who will be taking part in the Conclave. What will your contribution be? Could one of you be elected Pope or are there any ecclesiological obstacles?
Our presence in the Catholic Church testifies the Church’s diversity and richness. Can one of us become Pope? The papacy is a divine vocation. The Lord chooses the person he wants. In as far as the cardinals are concerned, they must join together in prayer and discussion to identify through suffrage who God’s chosen one is.
Is there a legitimate and pastoral opportune way of taking geo-political factors into account when electing the Pope?
One always hopes that one of their own country’s candidates will be chosen; someone who knows and is is able to deal with problems and pastoral emergencies experienced in their own part of the world. But we cannot have a Pope for each country. What is important is that the General Congregation discussions give a truthful picture of the Church’s condition in all parts of the world so that the new Pope is aware of the new challenges and expectations that exist and is aided in exercising a ministry that is by nature universal.
But what would Middle Eastern Christians think if a U.S. Pope were to be elected?
They would see him as a Pope and that’s all. Both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East venerate the figure of the Pope, no matter who he is. Criticisms against him simply do not exist. The Pope is the Pope and it makes no difference to them whether he is American, Spanish, Italian or other.