Bkirki offers us dictatorship on Rai


You have to wonder what the Maronite Church and the Vatican were thinking when they replaced the old but smoothly functioning Nasrallah Sfeir with a malfunctioning Beshara Rai.

The patriarch took a lashing this week from Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. He merited far more. Rai’s defense of the Syrian regime and his recently expressed views on Muslims, and even the Vatican, have been immoral, patronizing, prejudicial to his own community, foolish, or some combination thereof.

In an interview with Reuters last week, Rai observed, “We are with the Arab Spring but we are not with this spring of violence, war, destruction and killing. This is turning to winter.” The patriarch expressed his fears for Christians in the Middle East, and implied that Syria’s leadership represented less of a threat to the community.

“It’s true that the Syrian Baath regime is an extreme and dictatorial regime, but there are many others like it in the Arab world,” Rai said. “All regimes in the Arab world have Islam as a state religion, except for Syria. It stands out for not saying it is an Islamic state … The closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world]is Syria.”

The passage provoked derision and outrage. Rai is evidently unable to distinguish between democracy and religious pluralism. One is not necessarily the other, and Syria shows us why. The patriarch also seems incapable of understanding democracy. It is most definitely not the military repression of a majority by a minority preserving its prerogatives. He is equally at sea about how to read the Syrian uprising in the context of the so-called Arab Spring. After all, it is Bashar Assad’s regime, the one he supports, that has carried Syria into the deepest recesses of winter through its systematic butchery of the civilian population. And by the way, did Rai read Syria’s new Constitution? It mandates that presidents must be Muslim.

Rai’s defenders say the man should be allowed to speak his mind, to defend the Maronites. Yet whenever the patriarch has done so, he has divided his flock. Perhaps he was too busy chattering away in the recesses of his parishes to hear of the virtues of silence. There are topics on which one’s opinions are best left unstated.

Given his profession, the patriarch’s views on Syria are astonishing. For years Rai appeared on the Christian station Tele-Lumiere to lecture the faithful on religious morals. To this day we are blessed with reruns of his silky homilies. That this same individual should presently be defending a mass murderer tells us much about Rai’s celestial insincerity. It must also leave not a few practicing Christians wondering what it is about their religion that they missed.

Never one to deny narcissism, Rai recently invited a Paris-Match reporter to spend three days with him in Bkirki for an interview. The outcome was a useful compendium of what not to say.

Rai was singularly disdainful of the Arab world in general, and of Muslims in particular. “Presidents are re-elected with 99.9 percent of the votes,” he pointed out, as if such electoral margins retained any legitimacy whatsoever. “With such a mentality, what can the alternative be between a sovereign and a president for life? The source of legislation in all domains is the Quran. There exists a single party, with all political, judicial and military power in the hands of Muslims who address every point through the Shariah. Democracy and theocracy are as contradictory as snow and fire.”

Well, there are Muslims and there are Muslims, someone might be tempted to explain to Rai, just as there are Christians and Christians. There are Christians who believe in religious coexistence; who try to avoid painting Muslims in broad, condescending brush strokes; and who know enough modern history to recognize that there has been a powerful secular current in the Arab world during the past century, even if religion has made a comeback, mainly thanks to the brutality of self-styled secular leaders like Bashar Assad and Saddam Hussein. And then there are Christians like Beshara al-Rai, who are prisoners of an insular, hierarchical mindset, who deem all change to be menacing, and who prefer to become the playthings of a tyrant, in order to protect their measured gains, rather than to extend liberty to all.

Geagea is right, Rai’s outlook is doing a terrible disservice to Lebanon’s Christians. But having alienated many in his own community, not to mention Syrian democrats and Muslims throughout the Middle East, the patriarch in his Paris-Match interview also irritated the Vatican. And this exposed another dimension of the man: his impulsiveness and immodesty.

When asked to describe relations between the Vatican and the Maronite Church, the patriarch answered they were “good,” before launching into criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. “I wish that our patriarchal churches and synods [in the Middle East]could be the object of greater consideration … [A] certain decentralization at the level of the Roman Curia is desirable, and a better understanding of our churches.” Rai complained that the Vatican “sometimes spends months investigating our new bishops. This mistrust is not pleasant for us … Let them give us more autonomy in our internal affairs!”

You have to wonder if a magazine is the place for a Maronite patriarch to settle scores with the Roman Catholic Church. This is all very interesting, and perhaps Rai is justified in his protests (though I, too, would set months aside to investigate our clerics), but these are subjects best settled quietly, within the church itself, not in a publication that reports on the escapades of Johnny Halliday.

More in the interview makes us doubt Rai’s judgment. For example, he asserts that Maronite priests, because they can marry, are “more serene” than their Roman Catholic counterparts, whose vow of celibacy “engenders frustration.” Some still hope to persuade the Vatican to push for Rai’s removal. That won’t happen, because the church’s reputation has become a hostage to his fate. However, a very troubling man resides in Bkirki, and Lebanon is the worse for it.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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K. Haidar
K. Haidar
12 years ago

Bkirki offers us dictatorship on Rai
Thank you Michael Young for saying out loud what many Christians and Muslims in Lebanon have been censuring themselves from saying.


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