SALT LAKE CITY — The head of the Maronite Catholic Church visited Salt Lake City on Friday, speaking with interfaith leaders about difficulties his country faces amid a surge in refugees.
Cardinal Moran Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon, met with each Salt Lake Interfaith Council member, shaking their hands and posing for pictures at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Salt Lake.
This is the first time a Maronite Catholic patriarch visited the Utah parish, said Father Joubran BouMerhi of St. Jude Maronite Catholic Church.
"His visit is a pastoral visit to pray with us, encourage us and support us," he continued. "To let us know, as a cardinal, as a Maronite patriarch, he loves us as much as he loves the Maronites in the Middle East."
His parish in Murray is one of the smallest Maronite congregations in the nation, but tickets sold out to attend dinner with the visiting faith leader.
"We really were keen on coming to visit this small community to tell them that small or big, we’re with them," Cardinal al-Rahi said through a translator.
He also met with several LDS Church leaders: Elders Ulisses Soares, Presidency of the Seventy, Wilford W. Andersen, General Authority Seventy, and Don R. Clarke, First Quorum of the Seventy.
"It's always a pleasure to welcome one of the princes of the Catholic Church," said Bishop Oscar Solis of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "And most of all, to welcome all the leaders of our faiths. We have one common mission, taking care of God's people in our respective congregations and communities."
Cardinal al-Rahi will visit other parishes around the country before heading to Washington, D.C., for a conference hosted by In the Defense of Christians, a nonpartisan advocacy group for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
One focus of the conference is addressing the security and stability in Lebanon, a topic the patriarch discussed at length with the Interfaith Council members.
The Syrian civil war drove almost 2 million refugees into Lebanon, a group equal to nearly half of the country's native population. The patriarch recounted problems the people are facing with the surge of refugees coming into the country.
"We’re not sorry to welcome them, but we want them to have a decent life, which they cannot have where they are," Cardinal al-Rahi said.
One worry is the lack of resources for refugees. In a small country that is mostly mountain terrain, there are not enough jobs, schools or services to accommodate the country's citizens and refugees.
"We are not at all against the displaced refugees. We understand their situations, we empathize with them, we try to help them as much as possible," he added. "But they are becoming a real threat to the country."
Another worry is security. Terrorists recruit refugees who lose resources and hope, the patriarch explained, endangering Lebanon and the international community.
Many of the refugees entering the country are Muslim, Cardinal al-Rahi continued, upsetting a careful equilibrium between the Christian and Muslim demographics. The government is set up to give an equal voice to both religions, but the influx of refugees disrupts the sectarian-based political system.
Osman Ahmed, an interfaith board member with the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, said despite the troubles facing the country, the peaceful cooperation between religions in Lebanon is the same picture he sees at interfaith gatherings in Salt Lake City.
"Every month we meet and make sure the community is well taken care of and support each other," he said. "We make the time for it to make sure our brothers of the Catholic Charities get the support that they need from us."
Bechara al-Rahi was elected Maronite patriarch of "Antioch and all the East" in 2011 at age 71. He was elevated to cardinal by Pope Benedict in 2012. He was also the first modern Maronite patriarch to visit the Holy Land and the first Maronite cardinal patriarch ever to participate in a papal conclave in 2013.