Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lebanon: The Autumn of the Patriarch

by Kamal Yazigi

From day one, the joy that accompanied the election of Patriarch Rai was mixed with apprehension[1]. 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 Lebanon's Cedar 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 made pokitical declarations only in times of crises and 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 showing 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; they were 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 surreal, repeating almost word for word the tenets of official Syrian propaganda. Distressed by the outcry he had 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 by accusing the media of "lacking objectivity." Subsequent verification found no possible ambiguity. On the contrary, there was a remarkable systematic unity. Analytically, his remarks articulated five recurring themes that 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 the necessary conclusion that 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 (even though a border was mutually agreed to years ago) 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 that could become seriously violent.

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 region as "regrettable disorder". In Paris, Rai apparently decided to go into high gear.

The scare tactics are blatant. Civil war and partition are unlikely, or temporary at best, as happened in Libya; the revolutionaries would certainly love to rule the whole of Syria. Overestimating the Muslim 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 Muslim Brotherhood and whose craving for liberty impels them every day to defy the most dreadful repression.

Moreover, one does 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 really 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 in just one 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, Rai 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. Further, Rai 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 before 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". Sarkozy 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 the former patriarch Sfeir, Geagea 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.

The most passionate reactions, however, came from the Christian public at large. Many dissenting voices could be heard, especially on the 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 raises the question of the political ambitions of the patriarch. One likely explanation for his frequent incursions into day-to-day politics is that he aspires, beyond his ecclesiastical role, to become the political spokesperson of the Christian community. With the exception of the Christians, who are politically divided half-and-half between the Aounists, allies of Syria and Hizbollah, and the March 14 Independence Movement, the other Lebanese communities have a dominant political leadership that monopolizes their political representation (Hariri for the Sunnis; Nasrallah, and to a lesser extent Berry, for the Shiites, and Jumblat for the Druze). In his initial momentum, Rai may have cherished the hope of supplanting the existing Christian leaders and unifying the Christians under his own authority. Should this happen, each community becomes a political unit that speaks with one voice and communicates its decisions to the other communities, with the government becoming a sort of record-keeper. Lebanese society would be transformed into a confederation of religious communities. Political life would be considerably debilitated, and any political initiative conducted independently of the religious communities would be seriously hampered. This would obviously destroy all political life for indivuals and transform it into a bargaining between "committees" – destroying Lebanon's formula for "living together." Under his leadership, Rai hopes that the Christian community will adapt itself to the returning Syrian hegemony, and even make the best of it, in the same way as the pro-Syria Christians did for years during the previous era of Syrian hegemony (1990-2005), collaborating with the Syrians, and condoning their violations of Lebanese sovereignty, in exchange for narrow sectarian benefits and for a better bargaining position in relation to the other communities.

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 1960s, and the role played by the Church in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, 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 like that and the believers might even be pushed into freethinking.

[1] Bechara Rai was elected as Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the Levant at Bkerki, north of Beirut. Even though the Maronites are mostly Lebanese, or of Lebanese origin, the Maronite patriarch is still called the Patriarch of Antioch and of the Levant in reference to the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch (now in Turkey) which was founded by the Apostle Peter. Today five churches use the title of Patriarch of Antioch: the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Chalcedonian Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and the Maronite Church. Historically, there has also been a Latin Patriarch of Antioch.

Kamal Yazigi


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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