Lebanon mourns the death of Patriarch Sfeir, herald of national unity
by Fady Noun

Born in the year Greater Lebanon was proclaimed, the patriarch witnessed all the main events that have shaped the country’s modern history. For Patriarch Rahi, the country has lost an "icon". National unity and independence topped the list of his concerns. He was able to challenge the "intimidation and terror" wall built by the Syrians.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The 76th successor of Saint John Maron, founder of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, died last Tuesday (7 May) from pulmonary infection, a few days before his 99th birthday (15 May). He will be buried Thursday (16 May) in Bkerké. The authorities declared that day an official holiday.

Born after the First World War, in 1920, the same year in which Greater Lebanon was proclaimed, the patriarch was a witness to all the great upheavals that have marked Lebanon’s national life: its "international" creation in 1920, the proclamation of its Independence (1943), the creation of the State of Israel (1948), the arrival of the first flows of Palestinian refugees, the departure of the Syrian troops (2005), the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2000 (they had arrived in 1978), the civil war that ravaged the country for 15 years (1975-1990), as well as the peaceful albeit dramatic flood of Syrian refugees as a result of the outbreak of war in Syria (2011).

Nasrallah Sfeir served as patriarch from 1986 to 2011, when, under the subtle nudge of the Vatican – and age – he gave way to a younger patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. The latter, as he announced his predecessor’s death during the Sunday homily, said that with his death Lebanon lost "an icon", an icon of piety, competence and fortitude in the face of adversities and all that could negatively alter Islamic-Christian coexistence in Lebanon.

Virtually all of Patriarch Sfeir’s ecclesiastic career took place at the Patriarchal Headquarters in Bkerké. Born in Reyfoun, the only boy in a family of six children, he entered the seminary against the wishes of his parents, and was ordained priest in 1950. Known for his intelligence, which was only equaled by his discretion, he joined the Secretariat of the Patriarchal See in Bkerké in 1956. In 1962, he became bishop and served Patriarchs Boulos (Paul) el-Meouchi, and later Antonios Khoraish. He closely saw the rise of the dangers that would eventually lead to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), and the failed attempts by Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, under the pontificate of John Paul II, to end to the cycle of violence in the country.

Notwithstanding all the sincere or pro-forma tributes paid by Lebanese government officials, Patriarch Sfeir will remain the man of two great events in the nation’s history: John Paul II’s visit to Lebanon in 1997, and the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, following a massive and peaceful protest movement on 14 March 2005, a month after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (14 February 2005). These two great moments reflected the two main issues that mattered to this churchman who never aspired to play a political role, namely national unity and national independence and freedom.

Such concern for the unity of the Lebanese people led the head of the Maronite Church to welcome Pope John Paul II’s decision to hold a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Lebanon in 1995.

In a letter addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church in 1989, John Paul II summed up in a single fortunate formula Lebanon’s historic vocation. Lebanon is "more than a country,” it is “a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East and the West".

This message, one of conviviality, guided Patriarch Sfeir, during the country’s great moments, in particular at the time of the Taif Agreement (1989), which ended to the civil war. He drafted the deal with the then Speaker of the Parliament, Hussein el-Husseini, "down to the smallest comma," according to the current Patriarch, Card Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. The approval of this agreement saw however the patriarch suffer one of his greatest humiliations, when the partisans of General Michel Aoun, hostile to the agreement, stormed the Maronite patriarchate and physically attacked him.

His concern for national unity – which did not mean uniformity or the disappearance of communal differences – was equally matched by his concern for Lebanon’s independence.

Patriarch Sfeir had no illusions about the manipulative and perverse role played by Syria in Lebanon, and its responsibility in its destabilisation.

In March 1986, one month before Patriarch Sfeir’s election, the Holy See came up with a plan to end the war and gave Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, the Vatican's diplomatic point man under the pontificate of John Paul II, the task to achieve it. Once in Lebanon, he tried to organise an Islamic-Christian summit, but failed to break through the wall of “intimidation and terror” Syria has managed to built among the Lebanese.

At that time, in order to meet Christian leaders, their Muslim counterparts needed the green light from Syrian intelligence and, if authorised, had to report back after the meeting.

It is this "wall of intimidation and terror" that the Patriarch and the Synod of the Maronite Bishops dared to brave, demanding in 2000 the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, in accordance with the Taif Agreement.

It would take too much time to discuss the war in this brief article, but suffice it to say that if the patriarch broke the Syrian taboo, it is because the Israelis, who also played a role in the Lebanon war, had decided to pull their troops from the country (24 May 2000) following repeated attacks from Hezbollah. Syria in fact had used he Israeli occupation as a pretext for its own.

In the end, the Syrians left Lebanon only in 2005, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the rise of the 14 March protest movement, also called the "Cedar Revolution".

Despite the pain and bloodshed, Rafik Hariri’s assassination united the Lebanese, with the notable exception of Hezbollah, in their demand for independence. The 14th of March will therefore remain a moment of glory for the Lebanese, as well as Patriarch Sfeir. And it was not the only one. The patriarch also saw a moment of glory and consolation in 1997, when John Paul II came to Lebanon to hand the Lebanese the post-synodal exhortation. That moment was also one of unity. Another one was the patriarch's historic visit to Walid Jumblatt at his palace in Moukhtara. All these hours of glory were hours of national unity.

Those closest to him say that Patriarch Sfeir – often compared to as a sphinx given how his simple words could be meaningful – passed away peacefully. After 14 March and the Syrian pullout from Lebanon, he said he had proof that there was Providence for nations as well as people. Speaking to those closest to him, the patriarch emeritus liked to cite Pope John XXIII who, overwhelmed by the work of the Second Vatican Council was having sleepless nights, noting that, in order to fall asleep, he would tell himself: "Sleep Angelo, sleep, there is Providence".