This afternoon Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai, the leader of the largest Christian church in Lebanon and a strong voice for unity in that nation, will visit a Lebanese parish in Uniontown.
The 71-year-old Catholic bishop was elected by his peers in March and is acknowledged by Pope Benedict XVI as patriarch of the Maronite Church, one of about 20 Eastern churches in full communion with the Catholic Church. His visit to Uniontown comes toward the end of a getting-to-know-you tour of Maronite parishes in the United States.
St. George Maronite Church in Uniontown was chosen because no prior patriarch had visited there. He will celebrate Liturgy at 6 p.m. and attend a dinner at the Uniontown Country Club.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Jom George, a subdeacon. "I'm 80 and have been a member of this church for 75 years, and this is the highlight. Now if they want to send someone to get me, I'm ready -- just not until after [today]."
But as he greets his American parishioners, Patriarch Rai -- who counts English among his several languages -- will be speaking about the concerns of Christians in the Middle East. While Lebanon's situation is relatively good, Coptic Christians in Egypt were recently attacked by government forces, two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have fled that nation and Syria's Christians face new dangers.
"He is emphasizing the situation of the Christians in the Middle East, regardless of political views," said the Rev. Nadim Helou, pastor of St. George.
About 40 percent of Lebanon's 4 million citizens are Maronites, and the church has 3 million members worldwide. Founded by the 4th century monk St. Maron, its worship resembles that of the Eastern Orthodox and it has married priests, but it is Catholic.
Patriarch Rai became a monk of the Order of the Blessed Mother in 1962 and a priest in 1967. He earned a doctorate in canon law in Rome, also serving as an Arabic translator for Vatican Radio. He became auxiliary bishop of Beirut in 1986 and bishop of Byblos in 1990.
Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, which includes Pennsylvania, met him in 1993, when both brought Maronite young people to hear Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver. Then-Bishop Rai celebrated Liturgy for all 200 Maronites.
"He's good at relating to everybody, from the most powerful to a little child," Bishop Mansour said.
He emerged as a go-to person for media covering Lebanon, the bishop said. In 2005 the nation was thrown into tumult following the assassination of its prime minister.
Eventually war would break out between Israel and Hezbollah on Lebanon's border, but meanwhile there were terrorist bombings in Christian neighborhoods. One destroyed the Maronite radio station, killing two people. Bishop Rai spoke out on Vatican Radio.
"I think it was hit directly and deliberately," he said, saying that the station tried to serve those of all faiths.
As Lebanon struggled to recover from the 2006 war amid political turmoil, he appealed for calm and rule of law.
"We see no other solution than to turn to the constitutional institutions, and by the latter we understand Parliament," he told Vatican Radio. "We cannot let protests in the streets resolve our problems ... Demonstrations serve to express opinions. In a democratic environment, however, solutions must be found through institutions."
When the previous patriarch retired at age 90, he was chosen to succeed him. He took as his motto "communion and love." In addition to its sacramental meaning, communion means spiritual fellowship with others.
"He chose two words that have described him and his desires and his ministry," Bishop Mansour said. "He has described the communion among Catholics, among Catholics and other Christians and with non-Christians. He has lived by it and he has continued this same line."
At his March 25 installation Patriarch Rai quoted from the Quran alongside the Bible, appealing for unity and peace. He cited a Bible passage about the "glory of Lebanon."
"This homeland is not for one community, party or group alone. It should not be monopolized by any, because being monopolized by a group is a humiliation to all and a loss to this glory, whose greatness is the diversity of its spiritual families," he said.
"I do not say in the 'diversity of its confessions,' for they have all been tainted by political and partisan colors which have stripped them of their sanctity, the purity of their faith and the spirituality of their religion. As lamented by the son of the Cedars, Gibran Khalil Gibran, 'Woe to a nation with too many confessions but little faith.' "
Since his election "he has brought to Christianity a new courage and a new vitality in the Middle East," Bishop Gregory said.
He has made bold statements, said Michael LaCivita, vice president for communications at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York, which aids Eastern Catholic churches overseas.
Right now the Maronites are divided politically between those who lean toward the west and Sunni Saudi Arabia and those who lean toward Hezbollah and Shi'a Islam, he said.
"The Shiites and Hezbollah are much more friendly to Christians than the Sunnis are, particularly those allied with the Saudis," Mr. LaCivita said.
Patriarch Rai is trying to heal the divide, he said, building good relationships with the Shi'a and encouraging a new Sunni grand mufti to continue his predecessor's interreligious dialog.
But he ran afoul of Western diplomacy when he expressed concern that a sudden fall of the regime in Syria could endanger Christians there. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to a minority Islamic sect and has tended to protect the religious rights of the Christian minority, he said.
The patriarch "has said that it would not be in the best interest of religious minorities in the region, particularly Christians, if the Assad regime were to collapse. He's concerned about civil war breaking out," Mr. LaCivita said.
That stand brought criticism in Lebanon and in the United States, "but he's a voice of reason and very realistic when it comes to the role of minorities -- not just Christians but all minorities in the Middle East," he said.
The patriarch will visit Iraq next month.
"He wants to let people know about the reality of Christianity in the Middle East, and how Christians in the Middle East are a source of joy and peace between all people," Bishop Mansour said.
"He encourages them, saying 'We are not a minority. We belong here, we need to be here and we insist in being here.'"