DAMASCUS (AFP) — The new Greek Orthodox Patriarch Yuhanna X Yazigi appealed for dialogue in Syria at his enthronement in Damascus on Sunday as machine gunfire rang out in the distance, a sharp reminder of the raging war.
"We believe that Syria, the government and the people, will find the gate of salvation through dialogue and a peaceful political solution to avert violence and re-establish the stability and peace Syria has always known," said Yazigi, who took the name of John X.
But outside the Holy Cross church in the heart of Damascus, weapons did the talking as clashes raged between the army and rebels in the nearby district of Jobar.
"God is not pleased when he sees the society we share with our non-Christian brothers shattered over politics. Among us and among them there are people who subscribe to fundamentalist tendencies that have nothing to do with religion," he said.
Snipers were deployed on the rooftops around the church when dignitaries from Middle East churches arrived, including Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, on a historic visit from neighbouring Lebanon.
Guests bearing official invitations were whisked through metal detectors at the door, but their chauffeurs were prohibited from parking in the area while throngs of devotees had to watch the liturgy on a giant screen outside.
Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam, a key adviser to Bashar al-Assad, was among ministers representing the embattled government at Yazigi's enthronement as Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
The ceremony came just a day after warplanes raided southern districts of Damascus, the latest chapter in the nearly two-year conflict in which the United Nations says that more than 60,000 people have been killed.
Many Syrian Christians have distanced themselves from the revolt, which morphed into an insurgency amid a harsh crackdown on peaceful protests, but others have taken Assad's side, fearing a rise of Islamism or an Iraq scenario.
Lebanese Christians, on the other hand, are deeply divided over the Damascus regime, which dominated Lebanon militarily and politically for 30 years before its troops withdrew in 2005.
Patriarch Rai is the first Maronite patriarch to visit since Syrian and Lebanese independence seven decades ago. He said he came to "meet the Christians, notably the 60,000 Maronites," stressing that the Church is "always against war and for dialogue".
"Every person that is killed, every time blood is spilled, tears flow from the eyes of Christ. Human life is invaluable, and there are no so-called reforms, human rights or democracy that are worth the blood of one innocent man," he said.
On Saturday the Lebanese patriarch called for reforms in Syria, saying they are "necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside."