Many, both in Lebanon and outside of it, find strange the exceptional concern with the election of a new Patriarch of the Maronite community. It is difficult to comprehend the reasons for such concern without knowing the role this high-ranking religious position currently plays in Lebanon’s political life, and the important role it played in the establishment of Lebanon as an entity within its current borders more than ninety years ago.
That is why the four Patriarchs who have successively occupied the seat of Bkerke since that time, ever since the days of Patriarch Elias Hoayek, have felt that they were entrusted with protecting the legacy of their predecessors, and with defending the bases upon which Lebanon’s independence was established, which are rooted in the rejection of foreign loyalties, to East or to West, and the protection of the pluralistic nature of the Lebanese structure, which sets it apart from other countries in the region, and even the world.
In light of such bases, one can understand the stances taken by all those who have ascended the throne of the Maronite Patriarchate, stances which seem to contradict each other sometimes, from one person to the next. Indeed, what connection is there, for example, between the stance of Patriarch Boulos Meouchi, who stood and “fought” against the Baghdad Pact and in defense of Abdel Nasser’s policies of unity, and that of Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who led the Christian, and later Lebanese, campaign against Syrian tutelage? How could such apparent “contradiction” be explained, having earned the former the nickname “Mohammad Meouchi”, while leading the latter to being characterized in the harshest terms, reaching the extent of accusations of being an Israeli “agent”, sometimes from within his community itself? The explanation for this is that, in both cases, and in other examples as well, it was his concern for protecting Lebanese sovereignty and the model of coexistence which was defining the steps and the stances taken by the Lord of Bkerke. Meouchi knew how deeply Muslims in Lebanon sympathized with the movement of unity, and how deep was the enmity that arose among them against President Camille Chamoun’s tendencies at the end of his term. This is why he found the sound patriotic stance to be that of respecting the feelings of the other half of the country. Meanwhile, Sfeir spoke of the threats which he considered Syrian influence to have come to pose for the existence of the state, its sovereignty and its freedom to make decisions. He also realized that the voices of Muslims in Lebanon would rise in warning against these threats as well, as soon as they would be given the chance to express themselves, which is indeed what took place.
Based on those same standards, “Mohammad Meouchi” stood against the Cairo Agreement, which “regulated” armed Palestinian presence in “Fatahland” in South Lebanon, when he found it to pose a threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty, despite the fact that the agreement met at the time with the sympathy of Muslims. Similarly, Patriarch Sfeir defended the Taif Agreement, which was supported by the majority of Muslims in Lebanon, in the face of General Michel Aoun, the leader of those who opposed the agreement at the time, claiming that it undermined Lebanon’s sovereignty. Yet when Sfeir waged the battle of defending the country’s sovereignty when it became truly threatened, he found Michel Aoun at the head of those opposing him.
All of those stances indicate that the Patriarch’s opponents are the ones who are changing, according to their interests and their whims, while Bkerke’s stances are the ones that have remained constant. Thus those who had wagered on Patriarch Sfeir’s successor being one less harsh in expressing patriotic stances will most likely be disappointed by the election of Bechara Rai as the new Patriarch of the Maronites. Indeed, Rai is not a man of religion of the meek kind, who views his role as being merely restricted to praying inside churches. He is not the kind of man who would even blink if he wanted to express a stance on a dispute or on any issue. Indeed, he has been the most visible from among the Bishops in the media, and the most open to people, in addition to being the one who has remained the most in contact with all parties to the internal Christian dispute, without any of this changing the clarity of his stances against those whose disagreement with Patriarch Sfeir reached the extent of physically assaulting him.
And if there is a description that would fit the new Patriarch, it is that he is a Patriarch for Lebanon, in the sense that he is profoundly convinced of the importance of pluralism in Lebanese society and of the importance of respecting the different cultures of the Lebanese and the freedom to practice their religious rites. Yet at the same time, he is a strong defender of the Lebanese identity, with what it represents in terms of rejecting all kinds of affiliation to foreign powers, whichever they may be.
Yet Bechara Rai, above all of this and before it, is a man who believes in dialogue as the way to resolve all disagreements, whether they take place among the Maronites themselves or between them and the other Lebanese. But of course the path of dialogue cannot be walked if it is open from only one side, and here lies the responsibility of the others, within the community and outside of it, to make use of the fact that this modern Bishop has been selected to head the Maronite Church under such circumstances.
*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on March 17, 2011.