The Patriarch’s final ascension
When Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir passed away, he took part of Lebanon’s soul with him.
Lebanon’s glory was handed to him, and we believed he would be eternal.It couldn’t have been any other way since everything about him spoke of some kind of strange timelessness; a capacity to be out of time if not between times: the slightly juvenile sparkle of innocence when his century-old face would suddenly light up to convey the greatest joy; the tone of his voice, always steady, always perfectly measured, even in the rare moments when anger, fueled by injustice, would break his celestial serenity; the incredible swiftness of his body, maintained by a distinctive tendency towards asceticism, ready to jump anytime with the intrepidity of an elf, but nevertheless exhausted by all the ordeals of life in the public field, which he carried like a cross.
Could it have really been different? He was, after all, the 76th descendant in a long lineage of patriarchs entrusted with a historical, political mission: to protect the lit-up sanctuary that his predecessors had helped to found: The Greater Lebanon, the country of freedom, sovereignty, independence, coexistence, reconciliation and peace.
He was out of this world, in the sense that he was able to rise above the current moment, undoubtedly conscious, because of his mission as the eternal guardian of the Temple, that it is only by soaring above temporal fixations that it is possible to seize the historical timescale, which doesn’t care much about small political tribulations, tactical reversals, demagogic and populistic speech, hubris or the delirious feeling of might.
His time was one of immutability. That is why the immediate power struggles –insults, threats, intimidations, betrayals, occupations, militias, assassinations– never defeated his determination. This is how he succeeded in defying the times of violence and the times of tyranny, when everything was nothing but odorless and colorless smells of death. He did so with a patient, constant, unshakable faith. A faith that helped safeguard, promote and restore democratic principles despite the daunting and enormous size of that task falling on the shoulders of one man.
The voice that shook Damascus
Born in Rayfoun, Keserwan on May 15, 1920, shortly before the proclamation of Greater Lebanon, Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch of the Second Independence of Lebanon, died on the eve of his 99th birthday, at the end of a unique political journey. Powerful because of his humility, his simplicity and his detachment from power, solitary due to his monastic habits, no one deserved to have a better, more restful eternal sleep.
Since his resignation from his patriarchal duties in 2011–the culmination of his earthly glory–the patriarch had retreated into the shadows and silence. Above and beyond his legendary humility and his respect towards his successor, he was overdue for the inevitable, well-earned rest of a fighter, especially after concluding one of the most eventful patriarchal mandates (1986-2011) that was tainted by the fratricidal and intra-communal struggles of the end of the civil war, the Christian sentiments of failure and frustration of the post-war period and the “sinister days” of the Syrian occupation and then the bright perspective of the Beirut Spring, which was quickly bloodied by assassinations and the militia-like counter-revolution headed by Hezbollah.
This “apprenticeship” of silence wasn’t really one. Nasrallah Sfeir had always shown a lack of interest in idle talk, despite his extraordinary eloquence and his unique way with words: brief, corrosive, lethal. All that was needed were a few sober, mismatched, almost monotonous words, with a dash of finicky onomatopoeia, often proclaimed in a high-pitched, wise voice, in order to make the Republic–which was subservient to the Syrian occupier for much of his tenure–shake, as well as to induce a rumbling of passionate reactions orchestrated by Damascus.
Still, the Maronite Patriarch never argued with anyone. Apart from the nobility, the wisdom and the responsibilities imposed on him by his rank, he made it a point of honor to avoid climactic duels or positions too abrupt or capable of negatively impacting the country in general and Christians in particular. He also never divulged more than the message he wanted to transmit: so many journalists in search of sensationalism left a few teeth!
In the line of Michel Chiha and of the Vatican II
Sfeir never liked to seduce or woo in order to please the crowds. He stood firm on this point even after Pope John Paul II visited Lebanon in May 1996, which validated Sfeir’s role as a leader who was able to help Christians overcome their post-civil war malaise, and after the famous call of the Maronite bishops in September 2000 that gave him an unparalleled, symbolic stature similar to that of Jean-Paul II in his fight to bring down the Iron Curtain.
Still, populism and Sfeir never got along. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as highlighted by the sad episode of aggression carried out against Sfeir by supporters of General Michel Aoun in 1989, which remains a painful memory. In fact, a re-reading of his in-depth biography, written by our colleague Antoine Saad, which currently stands at three volumes, shows that Sfeir was often the moral, political and direct victim of movements such as populism, Caesarism and Mussolinism, which pushed certain figures to manipulate the masses.
Could it have been any other way for a man whose political ideology did not align with the militias and supreme leaders, but instead resembled Raymond Edde’s and Nassib Lahoud’s? Early on in his priestly journey, Sfeir was drawn to the civil, sovereign and nationalist ideas of the National Bloc. He was also well versed in the lucid, but idealistic “Libanism” of Michel Chiha and studied in the reformist and modernist school of the Second Vatican Council. He turned out to be the providential, post-war figure that Lebanon–with all its mixed communities–needed to meticulously reweave the inter-communal links destroyed by the fighting and to create, without turmoil, a common will as well as political and social unity around the restoration of Lebanese sovereignty. Because of this, for two decades he resisted any attempt to torpedo the Lebanese formula aimed at distorting the soul of the country of the cedars.
Impervious to the “alliances of the minorities”
Sfeir was one of the main Christian godfathers of the Taif Agreement–along with Samir Geagea–despite opposition from most Christian parties in 1989. When the “Pax Syriana” was ruthlessly put into force, with the assassination of President Rene Moawad and the destruction of the Baabda Presidential Palace, Sfeir still made a point of honoring the agreement and demanding it be implemented. In particular, he advocated for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. At the time, in 1992, he wasn’t able to rely on anyone. Raymond Edde, Amine Gemayel, Michel Aoun and Dory Chamoun, the four main Maronite political leaders, were exiled in France and were deeply divided. Samir Geagea was an isolated figure and in 1994, would be put in prison.
Despite Sfeir’s call for a boycott of the 1992 parliamentary elections, some Christian politicians ran and were elected with a ridiculously small number of votes. As a result, Sfeir appeared weakened and alone in his battle to restore Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. On the one hand, the effort to mobilize an opposition stalled due to old grievances, internal quarrels and fighting between leaders. On the other, a different group of leaders was eager to ingratiate themselves to Lebanon’s Syrian masters in order to get their spot under the sun.
Sfeir faced a difficult task uniting Christian leaders to form an opposition, but he eventually succeeded. In 2001, with the founding of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, under Sfeir’s auspices and with the direction of Bishop Youssef Bechara, an opposition finally emerged. Only Aoun broke ranks to preserve his own political stance, and his relationship with Sfeir would remain tense. Upon Aoun’s return from exile, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (CPL) proclaimed himself “the political patriarch of the Christians”, expressing his opposition to Sfeir’s hostile position towards the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
Over the years, many political leaders, such as Kabalan Issa el-Khoury, Rochaid el-Khazen, Elie Ferzli and Sleiman Frangieh, would attempt to convince the Patriarch to give up on pushing for Islamic-Christian unity and the restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty. Instead, these leaders argued for a Maronite-Alawite alliance with the Syrian regime that would return the Christians to a position of strength.
Despite relentless attempts by proponents of the “minority alliance” to flatter him and change his position, Sfeir never embraced the plan, which he saw as a negation of the idea of Lebanon, and he persistently refused to honor the Assad regime with a visit to Damascus. Numerous attempts by the Syrian regime to open up a dialogue, led by emissaries close to the Maronite Patriarchy in Bkerke, only convinced Sfeir that the Assad regime lied pathologically and could not be trusted.
A Humbled Hero
The burden of the Christian rifts will prompt Nasrallah Sfeir to take the helm an guide the ship, leading the opposition to Syrian tutelage. Sfeir was also aware that the silence of the Muslim elite about the Syrian occupation wasn’t a sign of consent. Instead, he understood, it was due to the weight of the Syrian presence and dominance in Lebanon. Sfeir was certain that one day the Muslim elite would revolt. Sfeirs opposition was not one of tanks and soldiers, but sermons, speeches, religious services, diplomatic meetings, symbolic, unifying political acts and lessons in democracy, law and public freedoms. These were the tools that were used when the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus would strike, sometimes arresting, torturing and randomly incarcerating political opponents and other times suppressing demonstrations or questioning students.
The first nail in the coffin of the Syrian occupation certainly came from the synod for Lebanon, and the Apostolic Exhortation that emanated from it, that was handed by Pope John Paul II to the Lebanese people at Harissa. The Vatican, encouraged by John Paul II and Achille Silvestrini, president of the Congregation of Eastern Churches at the time, would play a fundamental role in helping Lebanon regain its sovereignty. The Synod also provided an opportunity to forge deep and important ties with the wise and elder leaders of the Islamic community, including Imam Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddine, just as in the past it had helped establish a strong relationship with the Mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Hasan Khaled, who was assassinated in 1989. In 2003, Sfeir’s decision to oppose the US invasion of Iraq also considerably strengthened this link to the Arab-Muslim world.
The second nail came following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon when Sfeir clearly and concisely called for the application of the Taif agreement and international resolutions and the establishment of a platform of plural opposition supported by the international community, notably from France’s Jacques Chirac, to restore the country’s independence.
Following the 2000 legislative elections and Sfeir’s famous appeal to the Maronite bishops that led to the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, he embarked on a symbolic tour of the US and travelled to the Chouf for a historic reconciliation with Walid Jumblatt, who had been one of his staunchest opponents. This caused a hysterical reaction of the mandate of Emile Lahoud, which resulted resulting in raids, and attacks on Aug. 7 and 9, 2001. Sfeir also moved closer to Rafic Hariri, who he always wanted to view as a new Riad al-Solh.
In the end, the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was directly provoked by the assassination of Rafic Hariri (Sfeir’s visit to Koraytem to pay his respects on the eve of Feb 14, 2005 will forever be engraved in Lebanon’s collective memory). The efforts of intellectual, political and civil society figures such as Samir Frangieh, Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni, helped build the momentum for the departure. And the people who turned out to protest on March 14, 2005 dealt the final blow. But the crazy dream had been patiently built, brick by brick, by an old man who had learned from and been transformed by the sacrifices of his ancestors and who had a youthful mind guided by the hope of renewal–that man was Nasrallah Sfeir.
From Spring to Spring
The decade following the Beirut Spring was full of disillusionment. There was the counter-revolution and gradual capitulation of the March 14 movement as a consequence of the steady blows delivered by Hezbollah and its allies. But Sfeir never gave up, despite his advancing age. He had campaigned to end the violence of the civil war and initiate a new chapter in relations between Christians and Muslims in 1989, and he had helped pave the way for the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, restoring Lebanon’s sovereignty.
The final cause he fought for was for the state to reclaim its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and for the recognition of the incompatibility of armed militias and democracy. To this end, on the eve of the 2009 legislative election, he came out against Hezbollah being allowed to retain its weapons. His position likely helped March 14 win a final political victory–a symbolic Thermopylae for a movement that had grown less and less confident in its abilities and more and more fractured and marred by sectarianism and petty politics.
Sfeir delivered a few more significant moments as well. His surprise resignation, a nearly solitary example of someone voluntarily relinquishing power in the Middle East, paved the way for the revival of the Patriarchy. He also voiced strong support for the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian revolution against the brutality of the Assad regime, while the majority of Eastern Churches chose to demean themselves by remaining servile to the “alliance of the minorities” rather than supporting freedom and autonomy.
The Spring’s Patriarch, the one who held a noble and virtuous idea of Lebanon, left on his final journey in the middle of spring. Part of Lebanon’s soul went with him in the midst of darkening times. But as long as there are enough lucid and courageous men and women who will “choose well” and privilege freedom, peace and coexistence, Sfeir’s legacy will remain alive.
Eternal? No, immortal!
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 13th of May)