BEIRUT: Patriarch Beshara Rai’s controversial comments on the unrest in Syria and Hezbollah’s arsenal do not represent a schism with the historical stance of Lebanon’s Maronite Church nor do they herald divisions within the clergy, analysts agreed.
“Different patriarchs can have different approaches or priorities but they are all faithful to the constants of the Maronite Church,” said researcher Antoine Saad, author of “Nasrallah Butros Sfeir the 76th Patriarch,” a biography of the influential former head of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect.
Referred to in Arabic as the famous “thawabit al-kanisa,” the constants to which Saad refers are a set of principles on sovereignty, freedom, democracy, equality and state-building that the Maronite Church and its patriarch have committed themselves to.
During a visit to France earlier this month, Rai warned that a possible emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria would pose a serious threat to the Christians of the Levant, and also indirectly defended Hezbollah’s arms and linked their divisive arsenal to Israel’s ending its occupation of Lebanese territory.
Responding to derisive criticism against him, Rai said upon his arrival in Lebanon that his comments were “misinterpreted” and “taken out of context.”
While the comments of the patriarch did not cause cracks in the clergy, they triggered a flurry of angry reactions from politicians as they were considered a major shift from the historical stances of the Church, which long espoused the concept of statehood and democracy.
Rai’s stances were actually in sharp contrast with those of his predecessor Sfeir, a relentless critic of Hezbollah and of nonstate weapons.
Also under the taciturn Sfeir, the Council of Maronite Bishops issued its vociferous call in 2000 for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
“We definitely have a change on the level of the head of the Maronite Church, but that change is not 100 percent radical,” said Saad.
“There are long-standing traditions within the Maronite Church dating back to hundreds of years ago, which Rai cannot and does not intend to alter.”
In fact, Father Hany Tawk, also a researcher on the Maronite Church who worked closely with Sfeir, explained that regardless of the opinions of the patriarch, the stance of the Church is usually determined in reference to the 1995 Synod for Lebanon and the Council of Bishops.
“The patriarch is the face of the Church but the decisions are made at the level of the Council of Maronite Bishops and based on clear texts,” he said.
Professor Fadia Kiwan, who heads the Political Sciences Department at the French-language Universite Saint Joseph, argued that Rai’s latest comments were based on a series of historical facts.
“Rai made those comments with the plight of Iraqi Christians in the back of his mind,” she said. “He doesn’t want Christians to side with any of the groups in Syria, especially since the outcomes of events there have yet to materialize.”
Kiwan added that with the nature of the conflict in Syria being sectarian, there was a big fear that Christians will be used as “fuel” for the conflict.
“The Druze, namely [Progressive Socialist Party leader] Walid Jumblatt, understood that all along, and now maintain balanced rhetoric with regard to events in Syria,” said the analyst.
However, a source close to the Church argued that Rai should have chosen his words more carefully and should have remained vague.
The source also drew a comparison between the incumbent patriarch and his predecessor, saying while Sfeir was reserved and composed; Rai’s vocal nature “often gets him in trouble.”
Following his return to Beirut, figures from across the political spectrum flocked to the seat of the Patriarchy in Bkirki to either show support, or inquire about Rai’s controversial Paris remarks.
“Although Rai’s latest stances seem to overlap with those of the March 8 alliance, the patriarch thinks differently than both the March 8 and the March 14 coalitions,” said Kiwan, adding that she could not tell whether the remarks of 71-year-old Rai reflected those of the Vatican.
“Everyone in the region and the world understands and realizes the dangers looming,” she said.
While Kiwan thought Rai’s fears about radical Muslim groups rising to power in Syria were justified, Tawk for his part downplayed such concerns.
“The world has changed and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have significantly toned down their rhetoric and performance and are now forced to open up to other religious groups they live with,” said the priest, citing Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party as a clear example.
Tawk said Rai’s blunt mention of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the possible ties it might build with Lebanese Sunni groups to dominate the Levant region, dealt a blow to the “historical Sunni-Christian reconciliation” that took place in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005.
“The patriarch blatantly told Sunnis he did not trust the commitment they had expressed to the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon as part of the Taif Accord and later on in 2005 after the killing of Hariri,” Tawk said. “It’s like saying I don’t trust Sunnis … this is a big disaster.”
Saad argued that the patriarch failed in genuinely expressing worries about the growing extremism across the Middle East, which is an issue of concern to all the ethnicities and sects cohabiting in the region.
“Almost all the communities and sects of the Levant and the Middle East in general have developed extremist branches,” said Saad, adding that Rai ought to have reached out to the “moderate Sunnis.”
“Liberal Sunnis are a majority. They are affected and worried about the growing influence of fundamentalist groups as much as other groups are and Patriarch Rai realizes that,” he said.