BEIRUT: Lebanon celebrated the election of Bishop Beshara Rai to head the country’s influential Maronite Church Tuesday as top officials, religious figures and ordinary people flocked to Bkirki, the seat of the patriarchate, to congratulate the church’s 77th leader.
Church bells tolled and fireworks exploded across Lebanese territories as early as 10:50 a.m. when Bkirki announced the election of Rai as Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir’s successor, six days after Wednesday’s summon of 39 bishops behind closed doors.
Rai, who headed the Jbeil diocese for the past 21 years, obtained a sweeping majority of votes after 14 electoral rounds, which began Saturday morning.
The Maronite bishops gathered in Bkirki’s hall following the announcement were unanimous in describing the electoral process as one in which peace and serenity reigned.
While politicians hailed the election of Rai as a guarantee of national coexistence, the latter dubbed the foundations of his tenure as “partnership and love.”
“This is my slogan for my tenure as patriarch starting with our synod of bishops,” Rai said, addressing bishops after prayers that followed the conclusion of the synod. “We pray for the end of Lebanon’s crisis, which is a country with a mission … under the current difficult circumstances the East is witnessing,” he added.
Lebanon top’s three officials praised Rai and underscored their belief in the patriarch’s commitment to the Maronite Church’s support of Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty.
President Michel Sleiman said the election of Rai was a continuation of Bkirki’s historic and national principles, which his predecessor Sfeir defended during his 25 year tenure.
“The election carries a lot of meanings since it was unanimous and this choice was held under a very good and loving atmosphere,” Sleiman said.
“It is certain that Rai will follow [Sfeir’s] path based on his clerical history on the religious, social and cultural levels … The patriarch will continue the path to develop the church while preserving its principles, which remain a uniting factor in Lebanon and the region,” Sleiman added.
Prior to his comments, Sleiman had held discussions with Rai, similarly to caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, who later arrived at Bkirki to congratulate the patriarch. Mikati said he was confident Rai would stand as a firm “shield against strife and extremism” and stressed that the patriarch would play a vital role in strengthening national coexistence.
“His Beatitude realizes the magnitude of the great responsibility that awaits him at the various levels nationally and regionally, and, God willing, his Beatitude will continue what his Beatitude Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir started,” Mikati said.
Echoing Mikati, Hariri told reporters that he would stand alongside the patriarch in defense of Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty.
“We always say the patriarch is Lebanon’s conscience and I told the patriarch that we will always follow the independence path and all we want is national coexistence and parity between Muslims and Christians and that Lebanon remains united under the Lebanese flag,” Hariri said.
Kataeb (Phalange) party leader Amin Gemayel said Rai, which means “shepherd” in English, was a “the true shepherd of the church” and “a worthy successor of a worthy predecessor.” However, Gemayel added that Rai succeeded Sfeir at a time when dangerous challenges lie ahead. “But we trust that the patriarch is fully capable of confronting it and will propose new ideas to unite Christians again as one body against all challenges,” Gemayel said.
Gemayel’s ally, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, voiced hope that the election of a new patriarch would unite rival Christian factions behind him as a guarantee to Lebanon’s success.
The election of Rai, who is a lecturer at several universities affiliated to the Catholic Church and a high-profile monk known for his frequent media appearances and academic credentials, comes at critical time in Lebanese politics and particularly for the Christian community, suffering, as it is, internal divisions.
March 8 Christian leaders, allied to Hezbollah and the party’s regional backer Syria, have criticized Sfeir, saying he was too involved in politics and biased toward March 14 Christian parties.
While Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun is scheduled to visit Bkirki Wednesday to congratulate Rai, his ally, Marada Movement leader Sleiman Franjieh, issued a statement congratulating Rai and voicing hope that his election would unite the Christian community.
Sfeir has been a staunch critic of Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs. The Council of Maronite Bishops issued a firm call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2000 and Sfeir is also a critic of Hezbollah’s weapons.
– With additional reporting by Maroun Khoury