BKIRKI: Thousands of well-wishers flocked to Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate for the second consecutive day to pay tribute to newly elected Patriarch Beshara Rai, who will officially assume his post in an inauguration Mass on March 25.
Ordinary people mingled and socialized with politicians, clergy in the patriarchate’s halls and lobbies, as well as its vast outside courtyard, which failed to accommodate the hundreds of cars and buses that headed to Bkirki from across the country Wednesday.
The line of parked cars and buses stretched from Bkirki’s courtyard down to the highway leading to the town of Jounieh, causing light traffic congestion on both lanes leading to and from Beirut.
The atmosphere remained relaxed amid a lack of strict organization and the absence of security measures, other than few municipality guards deployed at the patriarchate and two at Bkirki’s front door conducting a cursory scanning of well-wishers before their entrance.
Visitors took the right-hand stairs to enter the patriarchate’s salon, where Rai was waiting to shake hands, and left the building from the left-hand stairs.
At around 6 p.m., when Bkirki usually closes its doors, Rai appeared at the patriarchate’s courtyard to address the well-wishers, saying he appreciated their support while apologizing to those who had remained standing for a long period of time, waiting to congratulate him.
“Thank you for your attendance, which grants us considerable strength to take on our mission with [former] Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir and bishops. May God help us to accomplish all our great wishes,” Rai told the church’s supporters.
Rai added that Bkirki’s doors would “remain open this evening to receive well-wishers who have been waiting to meet him.”
Leading the well-wishers was Speaker Nabih Berri, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, who said he came to convey to the patriarch the support of President Bashar Assad.
“It is a message of support and assistance for [the patriarch] in his mission, which will reflect positively on both countries, particularly [Syrian-Lebanese] cooperation, and eliminate all divisions and strife which the region’s enemies are seeking,” Ali said.
Asked whether he invited Rai to visit Aleppo, where the founder of Lebanon’s Maronite Church St. Maroun is buried, Ali said the patriarch was always welcomed in Syria, where “just like Lebanon, there is a Maronite community.”
Unlike Sfeir, who during his 25-year-tenure never visited Syria, Rai is expected to undertake a pastoral visit to Aleppo in the future.
In an interview to be published by al-Massira magazine Thursday, Rai said “the visit will be a pastoral one since the patriarch has to visit his community every five years.”
Rai added that a pastoral visit should be differentiated from a political one.
In separate remarks to Vatican Radio Wednesday, Rai added that Bkirki remains committed to its principles in defense of Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
Rai’s predecessor, Sfeir, was a staunch critic of Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs and Hezbollah’s weapons. The Council of Maronite Bishops issued a firm call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2000, five years before their eventual departure.
Aoun and March 8 Christian leaders, allied with Hezbollah, have criticized Sfeir, saying he was too involved in politics and biased toward March 14 Christian parties.
Following his meeting with Rai, Aoun voiced hope in Rai’s capability to unite the Lebanese.
“I came on this beautiful day to congratulate the patriarch and I hope he will be the shepherd of all Lebanese. I also hope he will unite all Lebanese rather than stand at equal distance from all,” Berri said.
Berri’s ally Aoun said he hoped for the beginning of a new golden era to reign in the patriarchate “through a new mentality and thinking.”
However, Aoun refused to tackle the issue of inter-Christian reconciliation, saying “today’s visit was to congratulate the patriarch.”
Rai, who headed the Jbeil diocese for the past 21 years, obtained an overwhelming majority of votes among the 39 bishops who took part in his election.
A lecturer at several universities affiliated with the Catholic Church and a high-profile monk known for his frequent media appearances and academic credentials, Rai appears to enjoy wide support from the Vatican. Sources close to the Holy See said it had pushed for his election in a bid to modernize and institutionalize the patriarchate.