Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, formidable figure in Lebanese modern history, dies

In 1989, Sfeir put his full weight behind the Taif Agreement, co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Syria, which ended the civil war.
Monday 13/05/2019
Lebanon's Christian Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir reviews an honour guard upon arriving at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, June 24, 2008. (Reuters)
Lebanon's Christian Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir reviews an honour guard upon arriving at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, June 24, 2008. (Reuters)

Lebanese flags were lowered to half-staff following the death of former Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who died May 12, three days before his 99th birthday.

A formidable figure in Lebanese modern history, Sfeir was remembered for helping halt inter-Christian fighting during the final stages of the Lebanese Civil War and for aggressively supporting the Cedar Revolution that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri described Sfeir’s career as a “glorious chapter” in Lebanon’s history. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who was constantly at daggers drawn with Sfeir, described him as “rational and firm” in his nationalist policies.

Sfeir was born in the village of Rayfoun in the Keserwan district May 15, 1920. He grew up under colonial rule and studied theology and philosophy at the Jesuit University, graduating in 1950. That same year he was ordained into the priesthood.

Sfeir rose steadily up the clerical ladder, serving as secretary of the Maronite Church in Lebanon from 1956-61, after which he was deputy patriarch until elected patriarch on April 27, 1986, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War.

Despite his relative silence during the first stages of the conflict, Sfeir played a more active role during inter-Christian fighting, starting in 1988. Aoun, then prime minister, waged an infamous battle of elimination against his Christian rival, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces.

Christian neighbourhoods, immune to violence during the prolonged crisis, were shelled by Aoun’s forces, infuriating the patriarch.

Initially, Sfeir stood opposed to both Aoun and Geagea, hosting 23 deputies at the Patriarchal See in Bkerke to call for a ceasefire but, with time, he inched towards Geagea, who was arrested by the Lebanese post-war government.

Sfeir constantly called for Geagea’s release, saying that all warlords ought to be either collectively jailed or collectively pardoned. He argued that it was inconceivable that Geagea alone would be kept behind bars, while all other warlords were free and in positions of power.

His criticism of Aoun led to Sfeir being attacked and humiliated by thugs, believed to be Aoun supporters, in the final stages of the civil war.

In 1989, Sfeir put his full weight behind the Taif Agreement, co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Syria, which ended the fighting, although the accord reduced the powers of the Maronite presidency and empowered the Sunni Muslim prime minister.

Aoun famously rejected the Taif Agreement, leading to a final assault on his position at Baabda Palace and subsequent exile to France, where he remained until 2005. Sfeir opposed Aoun’s exile, despite the bad blood between them, and met with Aoun in 2009 in an attempt to end their 20-year feud.

Sfeir blessed a Maronite-Druze reconciliation meeting in 2000, ending years of animosity with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who posted on Twitter after hearing of Sfeir’s death: “Farewell to the patriarch of independence, reconciliation, love and peace.”

In May 2001, Sfeir played a paramount role in organising a visit by Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II to Lebanon. He also gained prominence in the post-war era, first for opposing the armament of Hezbollah, saying that arms should remain only in the hands of the Lebanese Army.

Sfeir was highly critical of the hegemony that Syria had in Lebanon, putting his full weight behind anti-Syrian demonstrators who protested in Beirut after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many called Sfeir the “godfather” of the Cedar Revolution.

Sfeir resigned from office in March 2011 and retired to the Patriarchal See at Bkerke, purposely disappearing from the public eye so as not to overshadow his successor, Bechara al-Rahi.

13