BEIRUT: The election of a new Maronite patriarch would take place “very soon,” Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir told reporters at the airport Sunday upon his return from the Vatican, where Pope Benedict XVI approved his resignation over the weekend.
Sfeir, 91, the oldest among 39 bishops who would gather to elect a new patriarch is expected to announce in March the starting date of a spiritual conclave to be held at Bkirki to elect a new patriarch.
The conclave would begin with three days of prayers to be followed by deliberations. The name of the new patriarch ought to be announced 15 days after the conclave kicks off its work.
Sfeir is expected make the announcement on March 2 when the Maronite church celebrates the anniversary of its first Patriarch Saint John Maroun.
The date of the spiritual conclave could be set for mid-March after the conclusion of ceremonies to be held in Bkirki to celebrate the silver jubilee of Sfeir’s election as patriarch and his golden jubilee as a bishop, several media reports said.
Sfeir denied he had a preferred candidate to assume the post. “I did not nominate anyone to the post,” he said.
Asked whether he had advice to convey to the bishop likely to assume the post, Sfeir said he would share some thoughts with the new patriarch once the latter is elected.
Sfeir’s resignation was accepted Saturday during a meeting with the pope on the sidelines of a visit to the Vatican to unveil a statue of the Maronite Church founder Saint Maroun on the outer wall of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Sfeir said he presented his resignation “so it would be accepted.”
In a statement released by the Vatican Saturday, Pope Benedict said that Sfeir’s decision was an “expression of great humility.”
“You have decided to step down from your post as the head of the Maronite church under very particular circumstances. Now I receive your free and magnanimous decision, which is an expression of great humility and deep detachment,” the statement said.
Some Christian politicians have criticized Sfeir, saying he was too involved in politics and supportive of March 14 Christian parties against their rivals in the March 8 camp. Christian groups including the Free Patriotic Movement and the Marada Movement believe that the appointment of a new patriarch will reduce the Maronite Church’s alleged bias toward the March 14 Christians.
But political science professor at the American University in Beirut Hilal Kashan dismissed speculation that Sfeir’s resignation would undermine the March 14 alliance’s role in Lebanese politics.
Khashan told The Daily Star that despite the involvement of Lebanese religious leaders in politics, they lack the means to alter the current political balance of power on the ground.
According to the church’s governing laws, the new patriarch should win a two-thirds majority to be elected but unlike bishops, who retire at the age of 75, the patriarch has no retirement age. Thus, a retired bishop could assume the post of patriarch.
Asked whether the Vatican preferred the election of a new patriarch who is not a bishop, Sfeir said he was “unaware of such an issue.”
Commenting on Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati’s wish to include all groups in his new Cabinet, the prelate said, “the tradition in recent years saw the participation of all factions in the Cabinet.”