SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Just weeks before Pope Francis is set to sign a new encyclical on human fraternity, the head of the Maronite Church is pointing to his own country of Lebanon as an example of how Christians and Muslims can peacefully live together. 

Cardinal Béchara Boutros Rai, the patriarch of the predominately-Lebanese Maronite Catholic rite, emphasized his country’s commitment to religious toleration at a webinar hosted by Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture on Thursday.

“For us, dialogue between Christians and Muslims is the backbone of the existence of Lebanon,” Rai said through a translator. 

Fostering peace between Christians and Muslims has been a major theme of Pope Francis’s pontificate. The pope traveled to the United Arab Emirates last year to sign “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” and his upcoming encyclical “All Brothers” is expected to echo that resolution.

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The 2019 document, which Francis signed in conjunction with Muslim leaders, calls for world leaders to “work strenuously” towards religious toleration, and asserts that “authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace… and harmonious coexistence.”

But Pope Francis’s words about interreligious dialogue are not new for Lebanese Christians, Rai said.

“That declaration was already in existence in Lebanon,” he said. “We were applying that resolution before it was ever made.”

Lebanon has long been perceived as a neutral player amidst the religious and political tensions of the Middle East, and serves as a sanctuary for Middle Eastern Christians fleeing religious violence. The Mediterranean nation protects the legal rights of Christians in its constitution, and elects its legislature in proportion to its religious makeup.

For these reasons, Rai hopes his country can offer hope to Christians under strict Muslim rule across the Middle East.

“We want to maintain this for the sake of the Christians in the whole of the Arab world, because they say, ‘if the Christians of Lebanon are… living on equal basis with the Muslims, then we have some hope,” he said. “This is why the Lebanon formula is so important.”

Still, Rai did not present an image of Lebanon without problems. The nation made headlines recently when a massive explosion rocked its capital of Beirut, killing around 200 people and injuring thousands. A New York Times investigation connected the blast to the country’s widespread corruption, which was an object of civil unrest last year.

Meanwhile, the value of Lebanon’s currency has taken a nosedive, and the country is struggling to accommodate 2 million refugees who have crossed its borders in recent years, fleeing conflicts in Syria and Palestine. 

In his address, Rai appealed to participants for aid in his country’s troubles, suggesting that the fate of Christians in the Middle East could be at stake.

“I would like to urge all our friends, all those who believe in the importance of a culture of freedom, moderation, diversity and inter-religious co-living, not to forget Lebanon at this time of great need,” he said. 

Lebanon’s plight had a well-known sympathizer in Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The New York Archbishop, who chairs the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, offered opening remarks for the webinar in which he praised Rai and the patriarch’s country.

“Lebanon is a beautiful laboratory of religious freedom and religious diversity,” he told Rai. “May our company this morning just be a sign to you of our love, our solidarity, our prayer, and our desire to help.”