AMMAN The head of Lebanon's Maronite Church evoked his country's long civil war to condemn the futility of conflict, on the second day of a controversial visit to Syria's war-ravaged capital Damascus.
At a Sunday mass broadcast live on Syrian state television, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai appeared to dismiss the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's 13-year rule as not worth the bloodshed.
"Everything that is said and demanded in the name of what is called reform and human rights and democracy is not worth the spilt blood of an innocent person," said the 72-year-old patriarch.
Rai is on the first visit to Syria by a Maronite patriarch since the official independence of Lebanon in 1943. At a celebration in a Damascus church to mark the inauguration of a Syrian Orthodox patriarch, Rai did not refer to Assad directly but likened the 22-month uprising to the 1975-1990 civil war that tore apart neighbouring Lebanon.
"We come during a difficult time while dear Syria is in pain. We lived in Lebanon this deep wound as a result of futile wars," Rai told the mass.
His visit comes as Christians in the region feel under threat from the rise of fundamentalist Muslim forces. Syria has about 850,000 Christians, about 4.5 percent of the population, of which about 400,000 are Catholics of the Syrian, Greek Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean and Armenian churches.
Few Christians have taken up arms in the war, which broadly pits Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiites Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.
Many in the Christian communities feel that the fall of Assad could open the way to Islamist rule in Syria and jeopardise their future.
They point to events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen where popular uprisings strengthened the position of Islamists and provoked fears among liberal Muslims and religious minorities that their rights would be trampled.
But some Christians expressed concern over Rai's public appearance in Damascus.
Bassam Ishaq, head of the Syriac National Council, a Christian opposition group, said: "Rai publicly supported an illegitimate regime. He could have sent a deputy to attend the inauguration and met himself with the heads of other churches to discuss their fears," Ishaq told Reuters from Amman.
"Christians can guard their future by playing a part in the revolt and coming out in support of a democratic Syria of equal citizenship," he added.
Some 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising, which started as peaceful street demonstrations but turned into war after authorities fired on protesters with live ammunition.
The Alawite minority has dominated power in Syria since the 1960s. Assad's late father, President Hafez al-Assad, cemented the Alawite grip on power by forging intricate alliances with the Christian ecclesiastical establishment, Sunni clerics and members of the Sunni merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo.
The Soviet-style system banned all political opposition - Hafez al-Assad used ruthless force to crush an Islamist challenge to his rule in the 1980s - but allowed freedom of belief for minority faiths.
Christians played a leading role in the opposition to Assad family rule, but few have supported the revolt.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said Rai's visit must not be interpreted politically, describing it as part of the patriarch's duty to comfort his flock during upheaval.
But Fares Soueid, an official in the March 14 movement, Lebanon's largest opposition parliamentary bloc, said Rai did a disservice to Christians by associating them with Assad.
"It is akin to the silence of the Catholic church faced with Nazi atrocities in World War Two," Souaid said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Stephen Powell)