Syria on the mind of Maronite bishop from St. Louis

Molhel Barakai | Catholic News Service/Reuters
Maronite Bishop Shaheen
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In just a few weeks, Maronite Bishop Robert Shaheen will be travelling to Lebanon for the episcopal ordination of Bishop-designate Abdallah Zaidan. Earlier this year, Pope Francis appointed the 50-year-old to succeed Bishop Shaheen as the new head of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, which covers 34 states and is based in St. Louis.

For Bishop Shaheen, a U.S. citizen of Lebanese heritage who came to St. Louis in 1967 to minister to Maronite Catholics, this trip should be routine. But recent escalation in the conflict in neighboring Syria has generated questions for Bishop Shaheen and others planning to attend the Sept. 28 ordination. Groups from St. Louis, Los Angeles and Minneapolis are in the midst of planning their travel.

"Now they're all questioning should we go?" said Bishop Shaheen, who noted that the U.S. Department of State issued a new warning in April against U.S. citizens traveling to Lebanon. "And when they hear of the recent problems, many have backed out already."

Discussion has been mounting about whether there will be a Western military strike on Syria, which has been experiencing a civil war since March 2011. Rebel factions are fighting to oust President Bashar Assad. On Aug. 30, the United States said it assessed with "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack, killing more than 1,400 people on Aug. 21 in the suburbs of Damascus. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died in Syria's civil war, and 1.7 million have been left homeless. President Barack Obama said the United States is still considering options for how to respond to the attack.

Meanwhile, a myriad of Syrian refugees continue to flee to Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. It's one of the worst refugee crises that Lebanon has experienced, according to Caritas Lebanon, which estimates that about one in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Lebanon is about 4,000 square miles -- slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut -- and has a population of about 4.2 million people. Caritas Lebanon recently has been bringing attention to elderly refugees, a segment that has largely been forgotten in the conflict.

In a recent interview, Bishop Shaheen and Deacon Wissam Akiki of St. Raymond Maronite Cathedral said that Christians in Syria and the Middle East are not receiving the support that they need. Deacon Akiki, who came to the United States from Lebanon 11 years ago, said he's heard reports of dozens of Christian churches in Syria being destroyed, while many Christian priests, bishops, deacons and laity have been killed as a result of the conflict. Other media reports show that Christians are being killed in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

"It's almost impossible to know what's going on," said Bishop Shaheen. "We have different political ideas in Syria and these groups are taking over people's homes. It's become chaos in many places."

"Who is supporting the Christians in the Middle East?" asked Deacon Akiki, who returned from a trip to Lebanon with his family earlier in August. "The Christians in the Middle East are not being supported by any Western country. Where can they go?"

With thousands of Christians being killed across the Middle East, "nobody is saying anything about them," he said.

Lebanon has long been heralded as an example of peace in the Middle East. Several popes, including Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have conveyed that Lebanon is a place where people of different faiths can live together in peace. In a 2012 visit to the country, Pope Benedict said that "The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that, within a nation, there can exist cooperation between the various churches, all members of the one Catholic Church in a fraternal spirit of communion with other Christians, and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions."

Bishop Shaheen said that with the recent conflict spilling over from Syria, he's fearful that image may be eroding.

"Lebanon has always been a country that has accepted all sorts of persecuted people," he said, adding that about 35 percent of the Lebanese population is Christian. "It's a place where Christians and Muslims live together with no difficulty. They go to the same schools, live in the same villages. Even today, as a Maronite Catholic bishop, I could go into a Muslim (owned) restaurant and I would receive a warm welcome. Lebanon has always had that idea of tolerance, of equality."

In 2010, Lebanon declared March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as a non-working public holiday. The year before, it started as an "Islamic-Christian Day," in celebration of the Annunciation of the Blessed Mother, revered by both Muslims and Christians, and as a symbol of unity among Lebanese of many faiths.

Besides keeping abreast of the Syrian conflict from various news sources, some in St. Louis with ties to Lebanon have been taking to social media outlets, such as Facebook, to keep in touch with family and friends abroad. Pam Gazall, a chancery staff member at the Maronite Pastoral Center in St. Louis and a second-generation Lebanese-American, has been keeping up with the news from Syria from friends there and in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt.

"You're hearing and catching people who are there; you're hearing about these things right away," she said. "I saw pictures, videos, you see it first hand from Facebook," before hearing about it in the mainstream media outlets.

Bishop Shaheen and Deacon Akiki noted that people here in the United States should continue their prayers for those affected by the conflict. "Nothing can help without prayer," said Bishop Shaheen. "The Christians need some kind of assurance that their world has not been forgotten."

Catholic News Service has provided some information for this story.


Archbishop Carlson, Bishop Shaheen echo pope's call for prayer

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, in unity with Maronite Bishop Robert J. Shaheen, are asking Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to act upon Pope Francis’ call for prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Saturday, Sept. 7.

“Recognizing this is a very sensitive and critical time in the Mideast, our Holy Father has asked the Catholic faithful to unite in prayer with people of all faith for a very special intention this weekend,” Archbishop Carlson said in a Sept. 4 statement. (For prayer resources, see

“All the faithful are encouraged to fast this day, for fasting is a means of communion with God and neighbor,” he said. “It is an assistance to look behind oneself, and to reach out to others in their need. Fasting is an awakening at one’s spiritual consciousness to live our life for Christ and others.”

Pope Francis has said, “Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and hear words of hope and  peace.”

In addition to prayer and fasting, there are several ways to send financial assistance to those affected by the conflict in Syria.

• In January 2013, Maronite Bishop Elias Slaiman of the Maronite Eparchy of Latakia in Syria worked with Bishop Robert Shaheen and Bishop-designate Abdallah Zaidan to establish “Our Lady of Tartous,” a nonprofit organization to send aid to orphans, the elderly and others in need in the Syrian eparchy affected by the conflict there.

Check donations can be sent to the Diocese of our Lady of Lebanon, 1021 South 10th St., St Louis MO 63104. Please write “Syrian Refugees” in the memo. For more information, call the Maronite Pastoral Center at (314) 231-1021.

• Catholic Relief Services:

• Caritas International:

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