LEBANON: Maronites Bring Home a Political Message

By Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Aug 6 (IPS) – Bkerke towers atop the northern Lebanese city of Jounieh, a white mansion that serves as the refuge of the Maronite patriarch. The century-old construction seems to shine amid the shrubbery, contrasting against the pristine blue sky. Its story is as ancient as Lebanon’s, and reflective of its diverse past.

The history of the Lebanese Maronites, a branch of the Syriac Eastern Catholic Church dating back to the fifth century, has been punctuated with adversity. The order, the name of which originates from Maronite patriarch John Marron, currently reaches across the globe, dovetailing the emigration of Christian Lebanese to the United States, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe and South America.

“Some 76 patriarchs have led the Maronite Christian community over the years,” says Antoine Saad, author of ’76th Maronite Patriarch: Monseigneur Nasralllah Sfeir’.

Their leadership has proven a complex, if not perilous, exercise in a region mostly dominated by Muslims and where Christians have become, over time, a minority. In spite of the absence of accurate statistics, Christians are believed to constitute about one-third of the population in Lebanon (of about four million), a figure dwindling away with each subsequent war and political crisis.

Today, Lebanese patriarchs are elected by an electoral college in a similar manner to that of the Pope. This democratic process has along the years rendered Syria, Lebanon’s powerful neighbour and one-time occupier, wary of Maronite patriarchs, especially considering the pivotal political role the leader of the Maronite church plays.

Since the establishment of Lebanon under the French mandate system in 1920, Lebanon has had as many as five patriarchs, each of whom participated significantly in the country’s political scene.

In a country where sectarian lines run deep, little to no separation is made between politics and religion, allowing the various patriarchs to carve their name in political history. The creation of Greater Lebanon, in fact, can be partly attributed to patriarch Elias Hoayek, whose request to join southern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley (both agriculturally rich) to the original Mount Lebanon defined the country’s present borders. The patriarch, who was haunted by the famines of World War I, wanted to secure fertile lands for the people of the region.

Since the birth of present-day Lebanon, Maronite patriarchs have always believed and defended its independence and sovereignty — a vision that has been shared by the first four patriarchs since 1920, including Hoayek, Antoun Arida, Paul Meaouchi and Antoine Khrais.

The current patriarch, Sfeir, is also no stranger to this viewpoint. “Many believe Sfeir to be one of the country’s most influential patriarchs, as he defended both the principle of Lebanese coexistence and non-violence among communities,” says Saad.

Sfeir’s relationship with other Christians, like his predecessors, has witnessed moments of great tension and also peace. In the 1980s, radical Christian factions attacked patriarch Khrais, who was opposed to turning Lebanon into a Christian state. In 1989, it was the turn of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) to attack Patriarch Sfeir — as he accepted the Taef agreements as the only way to put an end to the 1975-1990 civil war.

The power of the patriarch has mirrored changes in the local political arena. While it weakened during times of powerful Christian leadership, it came back to the forefront when Christians were divided. During the civil war the internecine feuds between Christians contributed to fragmenting Christian power. These feuds included the conflict between Bashir Gemayel (scion of a powerful Maronite family) and other Christian leaders as well as the fierce battles between Samir Geagea’s Christian Lebanese Forces and General Michel Aoun (current head of the FPM), who was at the time the head of the Lebanese army.

This state of affairs was further exacerbated by the 1989 Taef Accord (signed in Taef in Saudi Arabia in 1989), which in addition to putting an end to civil strife, transferred much of the power from the hands of the president (a position held by a Maronite) to a ministerial council to be headed by a Sunni Muslim. The weakened Christian factions had to realign themselves with either the Sunnis (as with the current alliance between the Lebanese Forces and the Sunni Future movement), or with Shias (as with the coalition of the FPM and Hezbollah).

But in such a context, the patriarch’s political influence has again grown significantly. According to an article published last year in the local French publication ‘Magazine,’ patriarch Sfeir is Lebanon’s most publicised religious leader, with significant influence over important political decisions. In 2000, the Maronite bishop communiqué was the first to denounce the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, paving the way for the massive March 14 protest against Syria’s presence in 2005 following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Today, the role of the patriarch has extended beyond the country’s borders. At 88, patriarch Sfeir is a tireless leader who has travelled to the U.S. and Australia, carrying the message of the Maronite church, while still influencing politics at home. “More than 50 percent of Maronites live outside Lebanon,” says Antonio Andary from the Maronite League. “It is our duty to keep alive the ties of Maronites around the world with their church and country.” (END/2008)