Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir announced on Wednesday that he will not accompany Pope John Paul II on the latter’s historic trip to Syria, citing the “political character” the visit has assumed, according to the Daily Star newspaper.
The decision came in a statement issued following the Council of Maronite Bishops’ monthly meeting to consider church matters and the current situation in the country and the region as a whole, said the paper.
The statement said the pope’s planned tour of Greece, Syria and Malta was welcomed, appreciated and a cause for satisfaction, but expressed regret that Sfeir would not be able to participate.
“It was the patriarch’s intention,” the statement explained, “to participate in celebrations accompanying the visit had it not been for the political character it assumed in Lebanese public opinion, making an ‘issue’ out of it that departed from its pastoral nature."
“This is deeply regrettable,” said the statement, cited by the paper.
Sfeir has been leading a campaign demanding the end of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.
A number of politicians had encouraged Sfeir’s participation in welcoming the pope to Damascus, in a bid to improve relations between the two countries.
Meanwhile, speaking to his weekly audience at Saint Peter’s Square Wednesday, the Pope promised to use the trip to help heal the Vatican’s troubled relations with the Orthodox churches and improve ties with the Muslim world, said the daily.
The pope arrives in Athens on Friday and will travel to Syria and Malta as part of his pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul.
“May this pilgrimage be a happy occasion to reinforce understanding with our Orthodox brothers,” he said, “promoting more progress on the path toward fully uniting Christians.
“I also hope my visit to Syria, and in particular the Great Mosque of Damascus, will help reinforce inter-religious dialogue … by promoting an efficient and peaceful co-existence.”
The pope’s six-day tour will begin under intense security in Greece, where there is widespread opposition to Catholics among the country’s Christian Orthodox majority.
The visit to Athens will be the first by a pope since the 1054 schism marking the division between Rome and Eastern churches over doctrine.
Greece, Syria and Malta all boast sites where Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus before he converted to Christianity, carried out his missionary activity – Albawaba.com