Lebanon’s Maronite church elects new patriarch

aleqm5j_kh9lrl29g4grdaoenz2grieytw.jpgBy Natacha Yazbeck (AFP)
BEIRUT — Bishop Beshara Rai was elected as the 77th patriarch of Lebanon’s influential Maronite church on Tuesday to succeed Nasrallah Sfeir, at a time when his community’s political loyalty is deeply divided.

Monsignor Youssef Tawk, head of the council of Maronite bishops, announced the news from the church’s headquarters in Bkerke, northeast of Beirut, after days of meetings behind closed doors during which the bishops voted on who would succeed the long-serving Sfeir.

The head of the Maronite church wields considerable influence in Lebanon, where Christians make up about one-third of the four-million population.

Rai, 71, a high-profile monk known for his relatively moderate politics, frequent media appearances and educational credentials, succeeds Sfeir as head of Lebanon’s Maronites.

Well-wishers, including politicians and clergymen, immediately began to pour in to Bkerke upon hearing the news, some shedding tears of joy.

“Our joy has no limit,” said Monsignor Boulos Nasrallah, of Rai’s archdiocese in Jbeil, north of Beirut, as church bells tolled across the country.

“He is a very qualified person from a spiritual standpoint,” Nasrallah told AFP. “He listens to everyone and greets everyone the same, whatever their background.

“He is one of the pillars of the church (in Lebanon) and is open to all the communities,” he added.

Sfeir’s resignation was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI last month after serving for 25 years as Patriarch of Antioch for the Christian Maronites.

The 91-year-old was known for his staunch opposition to Syria’s three decades of domination over Lebanon, which ended in 2005 when Damascus withdrew its troops following former premier Rafiq Hariri’s assassination.

During his tenure, Sfeir also played a key role inside Lebanon’s fractious political scene, often adopting stances that earned him stiff rebukes from some of the country’s rival factions, such as Hezbollah and its Christian allies.

News of Rai’s election, however, was received warmly by the Free Patriotic Movement, the Shiite Hezbollah’s key Christian ally which for years had been at loggerheads with Sfeir.

“Today we have a new bishop, and with him, new hope,” said MP Ibrahim Kanaan of the movement.

“We have known him for a long time, we have faith in him… and await his excellency to announce his priorities both in terms of the church and nation.”

Outgoing prime minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq and head of a parliamentary alliance rival to Hezbollah, also hailed Rai’s election as “a patriotic moment par excellence” in a statement released by his office.

After the Copts of Egypt, Lebanon’s Christian community is the largest of any country of the Middle East.

The majority are Maronites, who were the most powerful community in Lebanon before the 1975-1990 civil war, but their leverage has since waned as high emigration and low fertility rates take their toll.

Today, their political loyalty is split between a US- and Saudi-backed alliance led by Saad Hariri and the rival Hezbollah-led camp, which is supported by Iran and Syria.

The Maronite church was founded in the fifth century by Maron, a Syriac monk fleeing persecution who sought refuge in north Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley.