Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

Lebanese Maronites' former patriarch dies days before his 99th birthday

Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir was considered instrumental in ending Lebanon's civil war

Lebanese Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, before a meeting with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. AFP
Lebanese Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, before a meeting with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. AFP

Church bells rang across Lebanon on Sunday to pay tribute to former Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, one of the most influential religious figures of recent decades, who died days before his 99th birthday.

“The Maronite church has lost one of its most prominent patriarchs,” the Lebanese presidency tweeted.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri paid tribute to Sfeir’s legacy, saying he had tried to bring the Lebanese together at “a difficult time in Lebanese history”.

Foreign diplomats also spoke highly of Sfeir.

“I am sorry to hear of the passing of Patriarch Sfeir, an exceptional man of faith who advocated tolerance and peace," British ambassador to Lebanon Chris Rampling tweeted.

A statement by the Maronite church published in the early hours of Sunday said he died at 3am and called for churches to ring their bells at 10am.

Born on May 15, 1920, in Rayfoun, a village in Lebanon's Kesrwan mountains, Sfeir became the leader of the church in 1986 until he resigned in 2011 because of declining health.

He was considered a respected power broker during the 1975-1990 civil war.

Sfeir’s backing of the 1989 Taif agreement that brought the 15-year civil war to an end bolstered Christian support for the accord but reduced the powers of the presidency – a post reserved for Lebanon's Maronite Christians under a power-sharing agreement.

“In 1986, Mr Sfeir was the first religious dignitary to cross the demarcation line [between Muslim East Beirut and Christian West Beirut] to meet Sunni Mufti Hassan Khaled," former member of parliament Fared Souaid said.

“He strived to break down walls between communities and became a symbol of national unity."

Mr Souaid was a Maronite politician and one of the founders of the Qornet Shehwan gathering that called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2001.

They left four years later, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

The gathering was launched with the blessing of Sfeir, who was strongly opposed to Syrian control over Lebanon.

During his time as patriarch, he boycotted several prestigious invitations to Syria, including the visit of Pope John Paul II to Damascus in 2001.

"His biggest struggle was to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which we all thought was impossible because of the divisions in Lebanon," his biographer, Antoine Saad, told AFP.

"But he worked on it steadily, objectively, meticulously and quietly."

Sfeir is also credited with having brokered the 2001 reconciliation between the Druze and the Christians.

The two communities fought during the early 1980s in the region of Chouf in what became known as the “mountain war”.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was one of the first to pay homage to Sfeir on Twitter on Sunday morning.

“Farewell to the patriarch of independence, reconciliation, love and peace," Mr Jumblatt wrote.

Sfeir’s health condition had been followed closely since he was taken to a Beirut hospital two weeks ago to be treated for lung congestion.

As his health deteriorated this week, the current Maronite patriarch, Bechara Boutros Al Rahi, cancelled a trip to Africa and a vigil prayer was organised by the mainly Maronite party, the Lebanese Forces, in front of his hospital.

Several prominent politicians such as Mr Hariri and foreign envoys including Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al Bukhari called him or visited him in person.

Maronites represent the largest proportion of Lebanon’s Christian population, which includes several other sects.

They were the most powerful single community before the civil war.

Updated: May 13, 2019 04:12 AM

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