Maronite patriarch prays for peace in Damascus
DAMASCUS - Snipers deployed on the rooftops around Holy Cross church in the heart of Damascus on Sunday as dignitaries from Middle East churches arrived for the enthronement of Greek Orthodox leader Yuhanna X Yazigi.
Guests bearing official invitations were whisked through metal detectors at the door, but their chauffeurs were prohibited from parking, and throngs of devotees had to watch the liturgy on a giant screen outside.
Only Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, on a historic visit from neighbouring Lebanon, and Catholic Patriarch Gregory Laham represented their churches in person.
Other denominations sent representatives, a member of the organising committee said outside the church in the city's Qasaa district.
Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam, a key adviser to Bashar al-Assad, was among ministers representing the embattled government at Yazigi's enthronement as Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
The ceremony comes just a day after warplanes raided southern districts of the capital, the latest chapter in the nearly two-year conflict.
Rai, who has denounced states that supply money and weapons to both the Assad regime and its opponents, is the first Maronite patriarch to visit Syria since Syrian and Lebanese independence seven decades ago.
In a sermon after his arrival on Saturday evening, Patriarch Rai said: "Reforms are necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside. They must come from within through dialogue and agreement."
The Lebanon-based patriarch said 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.
Lebanese Christians, on the other hand, are deeply divided between pro- and anti-Assad camps.