Lebanese Maronite patriarch tenders his resignation to the Pope

libano_f_0118_-_sfeir2.jpgby Fady Noun
Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, 90, told the Pope he wanted to be relieved of his duties. Benedict XVI has not yet decided. Various factors explain the decision, the “psychological barrier” of his age, the hostility of some political parties, and issues within the Maronite Church, the most powerful in Lebanon.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir has asked to be relieved of his duties, this according to an authorised source close to the patriarch. The requested was submitted to the Holy Father a few weeks ago but has not yet elicited a response. In the meantime, the Patriarch will continue to perform the functions associated with his charge. Professional and regional delegations visited the Patriarch’s residence in Bkerké to ask him to continue to fulfil his role. “You don’t change a horse when you are fording a river,” said members of the country’s parliamentary majority, currently involved in a tug-of-war with the opposition.

Lebanese public opinion and Maronite Church circles have reacted negatively to the double resignation of the government and the Maronite Patriarch, especially since the latter was supposed to be confidential.

This is why the Patriarchate and Maronite Bishop of Batroun (Lebanon) Boulos Émile Saadé initially denied the information. The latter personally issued a statement denying the news, saying that “its publication by some media aims at sowing confusion between religion and politics.”

It is well known that some opposition leaders are hostile to the head of the Maronite Church because of the latter’s views on national politics, which are different from theirs. Hizbollah, which at some point had contacts with the Maronite patriarch, suspended the visits that some of its officials regularly had with the patriarch.

According to an authorised source close to the Maronite Patriarchate, during his recent visit to Rome, Patriarch Sfeir told Pope Benedict XVI of his wish to be relieved of his duties. Unfortunately, he also told the members of the Synod of Maronite Bishops, which meets each month in Bkerké. That is where the leak to the media occurred, even though no one could predict that it would coincide with the fall of the government.

“The Patriarch’s decision is similar to a formal statement of intent,” the authorised source said. “It will not become final until the Pope accepts it. The Pope can temporarily defer it.”

“The Vatican had nothing to do with the patriarch’s decision,” the source said to rebut rumours to the contrary.

The election of a new patriarch could occur before the summer if overall political circumstances allowed it.

Privately, sources close to the patriarch are saying that whilst the head of the Maronite Church is extraordinarily fit and intellectually lucid for a man of 90, his age constitutes a “psychological barrier” that he must take into account.

The same sources noted that the patriarch is disturbed by the careerism of some bishops who in the past, whilst praising him, also tried to nudge him out to let someone else take on his role. This is why he was unpleasantly surprised and flattered to find out that a priestly, Episcopal and patriarchal jubilee in his honour was being prepared for his birthday this May.

Card Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, 90, heads the Maronite Church, the most influential church in Lebanon, since 1986. He is 76th Maronite patriarch since the arrival of the first disciples of Saint Maroun, more than 1,500 years ago.

In addition to his religious leadership, he has played a substantial role in Lebanon’s political life. His appeal in 2000 against Syria’s three decade-old hegemony in the country led to the rise of a movement that eventually saw Syrian troops withdraw from the country in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.