Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai arrived in Syria on Saturday from neighbouring Lebanon on a key visit and said the embattled country must make reforms but that these should not be imposed from outside.
His visit — the first by a Maronite patriarch since Syrian and Lebanese independence in 1943 — comes as the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime nears the two-year mark.
The patriarch’s trip is officially to attend the enthronement on Sunday of Greek Orthodox leader Yuhanna X Yazigi at the Church of the Holy Cross in Qassaa, a central neighbourhood of the conflict-ridden Syrian capital.
As violence raged on Saturday, including warplane raids targeting rebel positions in and around the capital itself, Patriarch Rai entered the Maronite cathedral in Damascus’s Old City to warm applause, state television showed.
“We are here in solidarity with all the people who are suffering in Syria,” Rai told AFP at Saint Anthony’s Cathedral in the Christian district of Bab Tuma.
“We pray each day for the end of war and violence and that a unanimous peace may be achieved through cooperation.”
In a sermon, the patriarch said: “Reforms are necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside. They must come from within through dialogue and agreement.”
Assad was represented at Saturday’s service by a Christian minister of state, Joseph Suweid.
The Lebanon-based patriarch told AFP his trip aimed to show “that there is unity, friendship and cooperation between the Maronite and the Orthodox churches and all the churches in Syria.”
Yuhanna X Yazigi was chosen as the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East on December 17, replacing Ignatius IV Hazim who died that month.
“It is an occasion to pray alongside all who are praying for peace, tranquillity, the return of the refugees and that a peaceful and diplomatic solution may be found for the problems at hand,” Rai said.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said he supported the visit.
“Not everything is linked to politics. Patriarch Rai, like Patriarch Yazigi, is aware of the needs of Christians and how to act to maintain their roots in this land,” Sleiman, himself a Maronite, said in a statement.
Christians make up about five percent of the population in Syria, where rebels and forces loyal to Assad have been locked in a civil war the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people.
Rai, elected in March 2011 as the 77th patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronites, in January strongly denounced states that supply money, weapons and other assistance to both the Assad regime and its opponents.
He said they would have to answer “crimes before the court of history.”
Many Syrian Christians have remained neutral in the conflict, but others have taken Assad’s side, fearing a rise of Islamism.