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Bishop From Montreal Drowns in Fla.

March 11, 2002

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ The bishop who was the head of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church of Canada drowned in the ocean while vacation in Florida, officials said.

The Rev. Sleiman Hajjar, 51, died Sunday. Friends found him floating, blue-faced and unconscious near the shore and he was pronounced dead at Holy Cross Hospital, fire-rescue officials said.

The bishop arrived in Florida on Saturday for a vacation before the busy Easter season, said Monsignor Gabriel Ghanoum, Hajjar’s friend and pastor of the St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church in Miami.

``It is a big loss for us,″ Ghanoum said. ``It is a shock.″

Hajjar’s church, in Montreal, has about 50,000 members. In July, he baptized the 6-month-old son of pop star Celine Dion.

Hajjar was named Archeparch for the Greek Melkites in Canada by Pope John Paul II in 1998. He led a growing church with 10 parishes and 11 priests.

He previously worked in Lebanon where he helped open a vocational school for the poor.

In Montreal, church leaders called an emergency meeting late Sunday but did not issue a statement.

The Melkite Catholic Church accepts the authority of the pope, but continues to follow Orthodox liturgy and customs. Many Melkite Catholics immigrated to North and South America in the early 1900s.

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