The Maronite Patriarch: Staying the Course One Year After His Election

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Rai’s realignment meant that Bkirki is no longer biased toward March 14 who lost an important reference point to hide behind and cite in support of its positions.(Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Thursday, March 29, 2012

After establishing himself as a major player in the Christian political arena, Beshara al-Rai is reaching out to other religious figures in Lebanon while standing firm in his outlook on the region.

The confusion surrounding the final declaration of the Christian-Islamic summit in Bkirki last Sunday did not worry the Maronite Patriarch, Beshara al-Rai.

On two consecutive occasions, Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Naim Hassan announced his reservations on the article related to Syria in the final declaration of the meeting: first, when it was read to the participants, and then, after it was released publicly.

There could be no better setting for spiritual leaders to discuss the Syrian situation. They disagreed based on different approaches to the issue, combining political positions with religious guidance.

Other motives also led to the confusion, mainly, the hastiness in setting a date and location for the meeting, in drafting the declaration, and in releasing it. But the speed of the process did not affect the outcome drastically.

The summit was suggested during the patriarch’s visit to the Beirut Archdiocese in February as part of a tour of the church’s ecclesiastical provinces. The proposed date was March 25, the first anniversary of Rai’s election and the newly sanctioned national holiday on Annunciation.

It was originally planned to take place at Our Lady of al-Joumhour School but the school was not interested in organizing it, so it was moved to Bkirki.

The final declaration was therefore prepared with some haste. Muslim spiritual leaders were not allowed the chance to review it in advance and make comments regarding the content.

The only reservations came from the Druze leader. The other Muslim representatives, Sunni Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani and Deputy President of the Higher Islamic Shia Council Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan did not object to the article on Syria.

Druze religious judge Abbas al-Halabi declared his objection at a later stage of negotiations. He recommended that the statement declare its support for the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012 that calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and accuses the regime of violence without mentioning the armed opposition.

Qabbani and Qabalan did not agree with the Druze point of view expressed by al-Halabi and preferred a non-political final declaration. Sheik Hassan, nevertheless, insisted on following his recommendations and threatened to leave the meeting.

He gave his support to al-Halabi who represents the Druze sect in the Christian-Islamic Dialogue Committee.

At the onset of the spiritual summit, the three Islamic representatives said they preferred a final declaration that avoided a political position. When the discussion reached questions related to Syria and Israel, this changed.

They collectively called for referring to Israel as “the enemy.” This was a pretext for the discussion to become purely political.

The final version ignored both initiatives, the Arab League’s and Annan’s. It opted for a general position on Syria, focusing on condemning violence and the loss of life and praying for the security and unity of Syria. The disagreement did not spill into the lunch ceremony following the summit. The Druze sheikh’s statement of reservation had to wait.

This did not lead to a crisis, nor did it shock the patriarch, who has faced several objections and reactions, especially from Christians, since his election one year ago.

The objections concerned his position on Syria, and his visit to the Maronite Archdioceses in Damascus, Latakia, and Aleppo, in addition to his meeting with Assad. The objections continued after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, for example, when he visited Paris in July 2011 and more recently.

Since the beginning of Rai’s tenure, some in March 14 saw Bkirki realigning itself politically. It was steering away from the position of the former Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir who leaned toward March 14 and spearheaded an internal conflict, calling on Hezbollah to disarm and opposing the Syrian regime.

Sfeir also supported March 14’s electoral campaign in 2009 and helped them secure a majority in parliament. On the eve of the elections, he warned voters that Lebanon would lose its identity if they were not elected.

While preparing for a secluded retreat with the bishops to evaluate his first year, Rai’s positions are based on the following principles:

1. Bkirki did not change its fundamental principles. Each period has its own standards related to the challenges faced by the Maronite Church in defending the Lebanese entity and Christian presence in the region.

All patriarchs faced threats, choices, and challenges that forced the church to spearhead confrontations. Patriarchs disagreed with presidents and community leaders. They insisted on their choices, defended them, and set them as standards for that era.

More recently, it was Sfeir who led the battle to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon following the end of the Israeli occupation.

At the end of the day, everyone will return to Bkirki’s umbrella even after a dispute, to reconcile with themselves at least.

2. Rai’s realignment meant that Bkirki is no longer biased toward March 14 who lost an important reference point to hide behind and cite in support of its positions. This does not mean that March 8, or General Michel Aoun, have won its support.

The patriarch stands in the middle ground between the two and has attempted to bring together the warring sides on several occasions.

3. The patriarch still maintains direct relations with key leaders in March 14 who do not want to be excluded from Bkirki.

He has a warm relationship with March 14 personalities such as Phalange leader Amin Gemayel and former Prime Ministers Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri.

During the Future Movement ceremony to announce their political program, he sent his patriarchal Deputy Cardinal Boulos Sayyah to represent him. Rai then called Siniora and Hariri to congratulate them.

On the other hand, some in March 14 who were used to being the only voice heard in Bkirki decided to stay away. A former March 14 MP complained to one of the bishops saying, “We no longer have anything in Bkirki.”

Such is the situation of the Lebanese Forces and its leader Samir Geagea, who attacked the patriarch during his visit to Egypt. Geagea accused Rai of undermining Christian presence in the region. He then backtracked from this unconventional and harsh position in an indirect apology, saying he was merely dismayed.

Nevertheless, some Lebanese Forces MPs have not broken their links with Bkirki. They visited several times to illustrate Geagea’s position but never admitted that the exaggerated accusation was unwarranted.

It seems that Bkirki awaits further clarifications from Geagea before it will invite him. He will start feeling the pressure as the 2013 elections approach.

4. Listening carefully to the patriarch’s words, one can conclude that he will not go back on any of the positions he took. He reiterated them several times in the last few months in spite of internal and external reactions.

He has stressed his position regarding the imminent threat of extremists against Christian minorities in the East. His position regarding people’s rights to freedom and to determine the nature of their regimes, without resorting to violence, is still the same.

He is insists on the need to uphold the diversity of communities who make up the region. He opposes dictatorships and authoritarian regimes but fears civil war and confessional strife, especially if they lead to extremist regimes.

He adheres to the belief that the Arab Spring will turn into an Arab Autumn due to violence and militancy.

The patriarch is more convinced today that he was right in his initial fears and concerns, and in the credibility of his positions.

The first time he declared them was in Paris last September. They are now being reiterated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy as both the Arabs and the West grow anxious about a civil war in Syria.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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