15 OCTOBER 2011


Those who advised U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to welcome newly-appointed Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai, who is visiting from Lebanon, have taken the wise and correct approach. Those who advised U.S. President Obama to avoid meeting him have done harm, not only to the solidly popular, outspoken, and well-connected Patriarch, but to the image and interests of the United States in a crucial region at a critical time. Some claim that certain influential characters in Washington, D.C. were not happy about some statements made by the Patriarch upon taking over earlier this year about an all-embracing approach to all Lebanon factions, and his visits to South and Eastern regions where he was popularly received by throngs of previously isolated Christians, together with their Shiite and Sunni neighbors.

Anyone familiar with the Middle East would know that the Maronite Patriarch is not just a head of a religious Christian Catholic group. Throughout centuries, he has been a national symbol, a regional powerhouse, and -- of course -- leader of a most predominant political denomination. In Lebanon, the President of the Republic, Commander of the Armed Forces, and head of the Judiciary, are by Constitutional practice, Maronites. While their influence may be fading, mainly due to internal political rivalries, the Patriarch has traditionally or at least officially, been above it all. "The Glory of Lebanon is bestowed on him," goes the inscription.

The reason for raising the issue is the unfortunate short-sighted manner in which the U.S. Administration of President Barrack Obama handled a current visit by newly-appointed Patriarch (Cardinal) Bechara Peter Rai to his wide following in America. While being popularly welcomed upon arrival, it was noted that President Obama did not (yet) fix a courtesy meeting.

During a recent traditional visit to Paris, the Patriarch expressed concern about the fate of the Christians and the impact of secret deals made by big powers with dogmatic Islamist groups playing a crucial role in current uprisings. On the Lebanese scene, he was taking a non-partisan posture, insisting on his motto of "Partnership and Affection." Reportedly, some in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut perceived one predecessor, Sfeir, as supporting a particular faction, the "14 March" group, led -- nominally at least -- by outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri. That is nonsense, of course, because the previous and current Patriarchs follow the same approach, although there is a difference in style and performance. Both serve also as Cardinals in the Vatican hierarchy. Actually, the new Patriarch has served for years in Rome which gave the impression that it was the Vatican that had an obvious hand in his election.

A perceived mistreatment by U.S. President Obama of Patriarch Rai could have negative repercussions. At issue is not the person of Bechara Rai of the town of Hemlaya, Lebanon; it is the Patriarch of the "Jewel of the Eastern Churches," Cardinal and leader of an influential community widespread around the globe, including the United States, Canada, Mexico and Latin America.

The status of Arab Christians is growing into a very serious issue and will need to be addressed separately. For example, two-thirds of the Christians in Iraq, one of the oldest communities in Mesopotamia, is now living in exile. Persecution, threats and regular attacks over recent years have increased to the level of a looming international crisis.

Meanwhile, common sense -- rather than vindictiveness or suspicions -- should prevail. An effort by President Obama to appropriately meet with one of the most distinguished and dignified personalities of the Fertile Crescent will be to his own advantage. Already his reputation in the region has substantially diminished since he folded while handling Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Having lost the Palestinians, he may find it useful not to antagonize the Lebanese.