The Autumn of the Patriarch


From day one, the joy that accompanied the election of Patriarch Rai was mixed with apprehension. Many regretted the retirement of Patriarch Sfeir, a historical figure associated in their memory with Lebanon’s finest hours. Sfeir was an outspoken critic of Syrian hegemony. The famous communiqué of Maronite bishops in September 2000 had given a strong impulse to the dynamics leading up five years later to the Cedars Revolution.

The first alarming act of the new Patriarch was his announcement hours after taking office that he intended to visit Syria, allegedly on a pastoral trip. That was a departure from his predecessor who consistently refused to concede a visit to Syria. Luckily, the eruption of the Syrian uprising deferred the ill-advised visit.

Another conspicuous departure was Rai’s expansive style contrasting with a patriarchal tradition of sobriety and verbal parsimony. Past patriarchs had pronounced only in times of crises on high-level national issues. The Lebanese could compare the dignified countenance of Sfeir with the demonstrative and media-hungry Rai. They also suspected that behind some of Rai’s initiatives —a ceremonial reunion of Christian leaders and a no less futile spiritual summit—and his perpetual movement, not to mention the ubiquitous scarlet soutane, is a desire for show off and self-promotion. Comparing Sfeir and Rai, Maronites would say jokingly: our permanent patriarch and our roving patriarch.

The malaise persisted during the past months until Rai’s recent declarations during his official visit to France. That was the last straw. The Patriarch had exceeded the worst expectations. Criticism unleashed, profusely. Never had a religious dignitary fallen from grace as quickly.

Rai’s declarations seemed surrealistic, as they repeated almost word for word the tenets of official Syrian propaganda. Distressed by the outcry he provoked, and anxious no doubt to stifle the matter, Rai added insult to injury by protesting that his declarations were misinterpreted and taken out of context, and accusing the media of “lacking objectivity”. I verified and found no possible ambiguity. On the contrary, they present a remarkable systematic unity. Analytically, they articulate five recurring themes, and can be paraphrased as follows.

Apocalypse Now Theme. The fall of the Syrian regime will be followed by a Sunni-Alawite civil war or a partition of Syria into sectarian mini-states.

Christians-are-in-Danger Theme. The Muslim Brotherhood will take over, and Christians will pay the price, as they did in Iraq.

Give-Assad-a-Chance Theme. The first two points lead to a necessary conclusion: the international community must give Assad more chances to implement the reforms he already announced. And the icing on the cake: “Assad is an open-minded person who studied in Europe, but he cannot make miracles.”

Hezbollah’s-Arms-are-Forever Theme. Hezbollah cannot be asked to disarm until the international community exerts pressure on Israel to withdraw from a parcel of Lebanese territory it still occupies and allow Palestinians in Lebanon to return to their lands.

The-Sunni-Scare Theme. When the Sunnis come to power in Syria, they will galvanize their counterparts in Lebanon and form an alliance with them, leading to an escalation of Sunni-Shiite tension in Lebanon. This is Apocalypse Now, Part II.

As a side note, Rai did not miss the opportunity to cast doubt, in passing, on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL, the UN-backed tribunal set up to try those behind the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri), saying that he supported it “on condition that it is not politicized”.

These are not passing remarks. Nor are they just a slip of the tongue. The proof is that the Maronite Patriarch reaffirmed his positions a few days later during a trip to Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold, contrary to wishful expectations that he intended to clarify his remarks as a prelude to retracting them. Rai was responding to an invitation to dinner held in his honor by Hezbollah senior official Sheikh Mohammad Yazbeck. The trip to Baalbek was followed by a three-day visit to south Lebanon where Rai reiterated his positions, in a slightly attenuated form.

Rai’s remarks are highly controversial.

Rai had not been charitable to the Arab Spring. In the homily he delivered on the day of his inauguration, he said he was “worriedly following the events in the Arab world”. A bishops’ communiqué later described the revolutionary events in the Arab world as “regrettable disorder”. In Paris, Rai apparently decided to go into high gear.

The scare tactics is blatant. Civil war and partition are unlikely, or temporary at best, as it happened in Libya; the revolutionaries would certainly love to rule the whole of Syria. Overestimating the Moslem Brotherhood does not do justice to the diversity of the Syrian opposition and to all those brave people who have nothing to do with the Brotherhood and whose craving for liberty impels every day to defy the most dreadful repression.

Moreover, you do not serve the Christians by frightening them and committing them to the defense of a crumbling despotic regime.

Forty years after this regime has been in power, should it be given another chance? Ironically, on the very day the Patriarch was urging that Assad be given a chance, a YouTube video was released showing a Syrian Army officer executing a wounded demonstrator in the middle of the street. The additional time requested had cost 35 additional victims, nothing but for that day.

On the most divisive issue in Lebanese politics today, the arms of Hezbollah, Rai ran counter to the position of the March 14 opposition parties, supported by many Lebanese, calling on Hezbollah to hand over its arms to Lebanese authorities. Rather, he gave his blessing to the maintenance of Hezbollah’s arsenal by linking it to the termination of Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory and the return of Palestinian refugees, a process that may well go on for a long time. Rai was thereby undermining the role of the state, ignoring that it is the business of the state, and not any Lebanese party, to defend Lebanon and force Israel to leave Lebanese territory, and by the same token, justifying the presence of illegitimate arms in the hands of a particular Lebanese community running its own mini-state at the expense of state authority. And he seemed to have overlooked the fact that Hezbollah’s project has a supranational dimension, and that Hezbollah is part of a regional axis linked to Iran and Syria.

Rai has also gratuitously antagonized an entire Lebanese community by expressing apprehension about the Lebanese Sunnis, a blunder no Maronite Patriarch has ever made, even at the height of the Civil War (1975-1990). Nor was he fair to the Sunnis who ruled Syria before 1970 and who never persecuted Syrian Christians or even posed a threat to then Maronite-led Lebanon.

Rai received a quick rebuff from the French. President Sarkozy reportedly told Rai that “the regime in Syria is over,” adding: “this is a certainty, and not an expectation”. He also told Rai that the Christians had to prepare for such an outcome and work toward the establishment of a civil state.

The U.S. reaction was more vehement. Rai’s statements were deemed unjustified, reckless and damaging to his reputation and position. Moreover, he was informed that it was not “appropriate to arrange a meeting with the U.S. president” during his visit to the U.S. in October. As a result, Rai had to skip Washington and confine himself to visiting Maronite parishes.

Locally, while the March 8 politicians naturally heaped praise on the Patriarch, the reaction of the March 14 opposition was critical yet measured. The most striking response came from Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party. In a fiery speech made at the commemoration of the martyrs of the Lebanese Forces, in the significant presence of former patriarch Sfeir, he took the opposite course to Rai, and reaffirmed his faith in the Arab Spring. Similarly, hundreds of Lebanese Christian intellectuals and opinion leaders are preparing to hold a spectacular conference to confirm the commitment of the Christians to the promise of democracy and modernization carried by the Arab Spring.

Curiously, the most passionate reactions came from the Christian public at large. Many dissenting voices could be heard, especially on social media. The positions of the Patriarch were denounced, mostly on moral grounds. Rai, they said in substance, has become the accomplice of tyrants; he has trampled the dignity of the victims and brought shame to the population he is supposed to represent; his statements have nothing to do with Christian doctrine; they are the statements of a politician, and a bad one at that.

This brings up the question of the political ambitions of the patriarch. One likely explanation for his frequent incursions in politics is that he aims, beyond his ecclesiastical role, at becoming the political head of the Christian community. In this perspective, each community becomes a political unit that speaks with one voice and communicates its decisions to the other communities, practically bypassing the institutions, with the government becoming a sort of record-keeper. This would obviously undermine political activity at a national non-sectarian level and destroy Lebanon’s formula for “living together”. This would also enable the Christian community, under the leadership of Rai, to bargain with the returning Syrian hegemony, abdicating sovereignty in exchange for sectarian benefits.

As a conclusion, one should not be surprised by the positions of the Church. Apart from rare exceptions, such as the controversial Liberation Theology movement in Latin America in the 1960‘s, and the role played by the Church in Eastern Europe in the 1980’s, the Church has always been a conservative force, and has at all times sided with Power, and with the oppressors against the oppressed.

Perhaps the only positive result produced by the contemptible positions of the Maronite Patriarch, and the Orthodox Patriarch before him, is that they liberate the believers from the undue respect they had for their religious dignitaries. One more effort, gentlemen, and you push them toward freethinking.

** Dr. Kamal Yazigi is a Lebanese academic and political analyst

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