New Maronite Patriarch

March 16, 2011

Below is a quick, unofficial translation of an article that was published today on the website of the French journal, Le Point.

A new Maronite Patriarch in Lebanon

Bechara Rai, 71, succeeds Nasrallah Sfeir, 91, head of the Maronite community for 25 years. – Posted on 16/03/2011 at 09:53 – Edited on 16/03/2011 at 11:20


The Lebanese Maronite bishops, gathered in synod since last Wednesday, elected on Tuesday morning their new patriarch: Bechara Rai, previously Bishop of Byblos. Bishop Rai, 71, takes over from Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who led the Maronite Church for 25 years. In January, Cardinal Sfeir, aged 91, had tendered his resignation to the Vatican, which accepted it late in February.

After the election was announced, church bells began ringing, while the faithful, some in tears, arrived at Bkirki, seat of the patriarchate, to celebrate the new patriarch.

“Love and Partnership”

In Lebanon, the patriarch is not only a religious authority. In this country made up of many communities, a country which takes for granted the principle of political sectarianism, the Maronite Patriarch is also a political figure. In 2000 the Maronite Council of Bishops, chaired by Nasrallah Sfeir, issued a call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. It would take another five years before Syrian troops would actually leave the land of the Cedars. Cardinal Sfeir did not hold aloof from tensions on the local political scene, either. In recent years, relations have deteriorated between the cardinal, on the one hand, and Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh, on the other, two Maronite leaders allied to the Hezbollah-led “March 8” party.

After his election, Bechara Rai, 77th patriarch since the arrival of the first disciples of St. Maron in Lebanon over 1500 years ago, declared that he intends to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. “I have chosen the motto for my journey, and it is ‘Love and Partnership,'” he added.

The Christian camp divided

While some view Bechara Rai as a moderate figure, others point out that he may be radical and combative, that the man does not mince words and has not always been a model of diplomacy. The new patriarch is, moreover, very committed to Lebanon’s sovereignty and rejects foreign interference. According to a Lebanese expert on religious affairs, Monseigneur Rai, whose surname means “shepherd” in Arabic, is a very learned man who does not compromise on principles, a man committed to Christian-Muslim dialogue, but also to the defense of the Christians of the East. Earlier this year, after the attack against a Coptic church in Alexandria in Egypt, Archbishop Rai had called for holding an Islamic summit aimed at “clarifying the real position of the Muslim world against fundamentalist currents which attack Christians under the guise of Islam.” Stressing that Eastern Christians are in danger, he called upon “Arab regimes to assume their responsibilities” in this regard.

Bechara Rai’s election also comes at a critical moment for the Lebanese scene in general and the Maronite community in particular. The “March 8” party, led by Hezbollah, and the “March 14” party led by Saad Hariri, a Sunni, have been at loggerheads since this past January 12 when the national unity government led by Hariri fell apart after the resignation of the “March 8” ministers. Appointed Prime Minister on January 25, Najib Mikati has still failed to form a new government. The backdrop to this crisis is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged with trying the assassins of Rafiq Hariri. This is an international tribunal which, according to several international media reports, was prepared to point the finger at members of Hezbollah. In this crisis, the Maronite community is divided between the two sides, “March 8” and “March 14.”

Two other links on the same subject:

Rocco Palma: “At Bkirki, Black Smoke” (from the blog, Whispers in the Loggia)

Marie Dumières: “Bkirki joyful after the election of a new patriarch” (from Lebanon’s The Daily Star)

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