BEIRUT (CNS) — The head of the Syriac Orthodox church, in his first official visit to Lebanon, called for Christians and Muslims in the Middle East to work toward peace.

In the streets of Beirut Nov. 6 throngs of people surrounded Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch during a welcoming procession.

His three-day visit to Lebanon was preceded by a visit to the beleaguered Syriac community in Sadad, Syria, 37 miles south of Homs. The community has been under threat from the Islamic State and other militant groups.


The patriarch, a native of Qamishli, Syria, was enthroned as the 123rd patriarch in Damascus, Syria, in May 2014.

The patriarch stressed during a homily at St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church Nov. 8 that “the region of the Middle East … is dear to our hearts. Here is where we have taken root and where we grew, and we will stay until the end of time” with government officials and religious leaders, including Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, papal nuncio to Lebanon, in attendance.

“How can we live without seeing the presence of God in every human face?” he asked. “Why do we work to eliminate the other, rather than elevate and sublimate?”

He also congratulated the Assyrian Church of the East on the Nov. 7 release of 37 hostages who had been held in captivity since February by Islamic State militants, and prayed for the release of two Syrian bishops — Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna of Aleppo and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo — kidnapped in April 2013.

The patriarch’s visit included meetings with the Lebanon’s civil and religious leaders. He also visited Dar al-Fatwa, the official seat of the grand Sunni mufti, who has religious authority over the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. He told local media that it was “more than ceremonial. It aims to strengthen the ties of cordiality and love between the Syriac church and Muslims.”

“Our mission in the East is that of the servant and not the master: working for peace, Christians and Muslims in the region. We lived together for hundreds of years and have no other choice but to live together in a family spirit and mutual brotherly love,” he said.