Geagea and the Maronite Church: A Battle for Patriarchy

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Patriarch Beshara al-Rai greets Samir Geagea during the laters visit to Bkirki. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Ghassan Saoud

Published Sunday, March 18, 2012

A year into his tenure as Maronite Patriarch, Beshara al-Rai has turned the Church into a major player on the Christian political scene in Lebanon, much to the chagrin of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

Samir Geagea’s journey toward achieving hegemony over the Lebanese Christians took him down different paths. In 1978, the Ehden Operation eliminated Tony Frangieh of the Marada Brigade, one of his main rivals in the north.

Then there were the “comradely” confrontations inside the Lebanese Forces (LF) during uprisings that solidified Geagea’s command.

Later there was the assassination of Dany Chamoun and the attempt on Michel el-Murr’s life, both of which Geagea was tried and convicted for. The head of the LF has been involved or accused of being involved in many crises but the one that most reflects today's crisis with the Maronite Patriarchate seems to be the assassination of Monsignor Albert Khreish in 1988.

Taming the Church

Former Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir had been appointed with the full support of the Vatican, as is the case today with Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai. Geagea's resentment of the decision then was the same as it is today. He would have preferred other candidates that were supported by the LF. In 1988, Bkirki, home of the Maronite Patriarchate, received a message: the body of its secretary, Khreish.

Khreish was politically opposed to the LF. He was convinced that the Vatican rejected the then close ties between the Christians and Israel and abhorred the atrocities committed by the LF.

The “Khreish phenomenon” posed a threat because the Monsignor combined his words with action. He refused Geagea's slogan, “the [Christian] command is mine,” and continued to teach about public freedoms at the Faculty of Law in Jal el-Dib, an LF stronghold. He formed the "Clerical University Action,” which sought to draw Christian youth away from weapons and drugs. He also insisted that the LF return Church properties, acquired during the civil war, to the Church.

Apart from his political and civic work, Khreish proved himself inside the Patriarchate by being a spiritual guide to the Ghazir clergy and a judge in the Maronite Court. Amidst all of this engagement – some of his relatives say because of this engagement – Khreish was killed in an LF secured quarter, in front of our Lady of Harissa, near Bkirki.

The specter of Khreish haunts us today because the stated political reason for the crisis between Geagea and Rai is similar to what caused the rift between him and Khreish. They are but two similar stops in the history of conflict between Bkirki, and by extension the Vatican, and Geagea.

The Comeback of the Institution

The Holy See is always calling on Christians to be rational and to look out for their higher interests away from instincts in the volatility facing the region. The LF, on the other hand, always opts for adventure, throwing its community into numerous calamities.

The crisis has its hidden side also, including two specific issues concerning the LF and the Maronite Church.

The first involves uniting the ranks of Christians under one banner for their protection. Here, Rai strikes his first blow. He has repeated that "the [Christian] command is [his]." He consecrated Bkirki as an umbrella for all Christian forces. It is there where Maronite politicians and MPs meet, not in Maarab where Geagea’s headquarters are located. It is in Bkirki where they discuss electoral laws and make recommendations. It is ultimately Bkirki, and not the LF, who has the road map to "protect the Christians."

The second concerns the LF's image as an institution that once proved to be "pioneering in managing Christian affairs," through its media, cooperatives, insurance, and social solidarity. Score another one for Rai as Bkirki is being reorganized into what seems to be a mini-Vatican. The Patriarch created 15 new departments, including: abbot affairs, marriage and family affairs, schools, health, organization and planning, relations with state institutions, and foreign relations. Each department was provided with office space in Bkirki and a budget allocation.

The Patriarch’s actions concerning the issues above are more painful to the LF than politics, at least according to the chatter of some abbots and LF regional chiefs. The party had always dealt with rivals, such as Michel Aoun, by claiming to be the only legitimate representative "to speak on behalf of the Christians and protect their main interests."

Keeping Geagea Out

Out of the five cardinals ordained recently, two are close to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), one to the Marada Movement, and one to the LF. The fifth, Elias Suleiman, is Syrian.

An abbot from Kaslik says that Geagea will face difficulties in his attempt to recruit some of the Patriarchate's priests to create – as Aoun did during Sfeir's reign – a politically aligned “theological cell.”

According to the abbot, Geagea will face three main obstacles. First, the Vatican provides full support to Rai. Second, after a period of disunity during Sfeir's era that allowed Aoun to play on contradictions, the different monasteries have now coalesced around Bkirki. Finally, Sfeir was in his final days in the Patriarchate when Aoun made his move, while Rai has just started what is expected to be a long assignment.

Laying a Solid Foundation

In spite of all of this, Rai continues to attract political veterans. Aoun's rivals flock to Bkirki, not Maarab. One after another, future parliamentary candidates come out of Bkirki's rooms.

Rai has launched serious discussions with different stakeholders in Lebanon. He is building a pact that ensures the long-term continuity and stability of his community and theirs. In this regard, one can say that there is an attempt to propagate a mood inside Bkirki, and within the priests of the Maronite church, similar to that in the FPM after the 6 February 2006 memorandum of understating with Hezbollah, and the discourse of their cadre at the time.

Following the murder of Monsignor Khreish, LF partisans spread a rumor that the crime was morally motivated. It overshadowed the formal investigation. The murder restrained reform efforts in Bkirki.

Patriarch Sfeir started wearing the LF colors and strayed from the Vatican's program for reform he was elected to implement. This will not happen with Rai. All those who know him well, and especially those who frequent the Vatican, can attest to that.


Seventy-six percent Support Rai Openness Toward Hezbollah

A recent poll conducted by the Beirut Research and Information Center on electoral support among Christians in north Metn asked about the openness of Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai toward Hezbollah. Of the 625 surveyed, 76.2 percent were in support of the patriarch, 18.9 percent opposed it, and 4.9 percent did not answer. When asked about the agreement between Hezbollah and the FPM, only 55.4 percent were in support, 38.7 percent were opposed, and 5.9 percent did not answer.

This shows that there are supporters of the Rai-Hezbollah openness who oppose the agreement of the latter with the FPM. When asked which of the following states they consider a friend of Lebanon: 23 percent chose France, 19.2 percent Syria, 8 percent Iran, 5.5 percent Saudi Arabia, 4 percent the US, but 39.8 percent did not see any of those countries as friendly.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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