Maronite Catholic priest tries to redeem sins from Lebanon


In a speech from the balcony of his limestone residence in the city of Bkerké, Lebanon, in late February, Lebanon’s leading Catholic prelate, Cardinal Bechara al-Rai, made it clear that he believed his country was on the verge of collapse – and the key to saving it is to disarm Hezbollah. “There are not two or more states in one country,” Rai said in front of a crowd of hundreds, who had gathered despite the pandemic. “There are no two or more armies in a single united state.”

It was the latest in a series of sermons and speeches in recent months that continue to take hold of the Lebanese media and have made 81-year-old Rai the patriarch of the Maronite Church of Lebanon the most influential Levant, the unlikely leader of a new political movement that relies on the support of establishment figures while using the language of anti-government protesters. It is fair to wonder where this balance leads.

In a speech at the end of February from the balcony of his limestone residence in the city of Bkerké, Lebanon, Lebanon’s leading Catholic prelate, Cardinal Bechara al-Rai, made it clear that he believed his country was in the brink of collapse – and the key to saving it is to disarm Hezbollah. “There are not two or more states in one country,” Rai said in front of a crowd of hundreds, who had gathered despite the pandemic. “There are no two or more armies in a single united state.”

It was the latest in a series of sermons and speeches in recent months that continue to take hold of the Lebanese media and have made 81-year-old Rai the patriarch of the Maronite Church of Lebanon the most influential Levant, the unlikely leader of a new political movement that relies on the support of establishment figures while using the language of anti-government protesters. It is fair to wonder where this balance leads.

Rai’s rhetoric may sound like vague patriotic speeches and moral exhortations. He was careful not to directly criticize Hezbollah or Iran, instead framing his demands as part of a larger political initiative to “save Lebanon”. But Rai also described his campaign as a direct challenge to Lebanon’s current sect leaders, based on what he sees as his historic mission.

Rai’s call to make Lebanon a constitutionally “neutral” country – similar to the role that Switzerland or Belgium sought during years of great power rivalries in Europe – is an unmistakable reference to Hezbollah’s alliance with the Iran and the Syrian family of Bashar al-Assad. During Rai’s speech in February, members of the crowd acknowledged his allusion by chanting “Out Iran!” Rai concluded with a call to the demonstrators “not to remain silent on illegitimate and non-Lebanese weapons”, warning against “the coup against the state and the regime”.

Rai also seems determined to organize political forces, not just to issue spiritual appeals. In the tradition of his patriarchal predecessors, Rai says he speaks on behalf of all Lebanese – regardless of their religion – and carefully signs to the Muslim clerics who were seated in the foreground in the crowd. His rallies, however, are strongly followed by supporters of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party whose leader, Samir Geagea, led his own militia during the civil war of the 1980s.

Sejean Azzi, a former Christian politician who coordinates a political group advising the Patriarch, said Rai’s demands include the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559 which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. “The patriarch refuses to maintain Hezbollah’s military arsenal,” Azzi said. “The patriarch refuses the Iranian project that Hezbollah is propagating in the Middle East and in Lebanon. The patriarch refuses the blocking of institutions in Lebanon practiced by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah rejected the Patriarch’s call for UN intervention in the Lebanese crisis as a “declaration of war” that could plunge the country into civil war. Talks have been launched between the Shiite group and the Maronite Church, with some supporters of the Patriarch showing signs of willingness to fight despite the vast imbalance of power in favor of Hezbollah.

In a sense, Rai’s campaign is a historical irony. The Maronite patriarchate – traditionally the guardian of the conservative political and social order that Lebanon inherited from its French colonial rulers – now presents itself as an ally of anti-government protesters while Hezbollah, previously insurgent, has become the defender of the status quo Politics. predominates.

The story is also indistinguishable from the larger political maelstrom that Rai’s comments created in Lebanon. The question now is whether he has a plan to get out of the confrontation he sparked and how his vision measures up against the anger of the Lebanese protesters he claims to represent.


It is no exaggeration to say that the Republic of Lebanon – as it was founded in 1920 and reconstituted at the turning points of 1943, 1958 and 1989 – is falling apart. The country’s current economic crisis has metastasized into a five-alarm crisis with far-reaching political and social consequences. Half of the population has fallen below the poverty line since the start of the financial crash over a year ago. In the absence of real reforms or the possibility of negotiating an international bailout, the state is running out of foreign exchange reserves to finance essential services, such as managing the country’s already unstable electricity supply. The interior minister, responsible for overseeing national security, called the situation a “free fall”.

Amid the political and literal wreckage, including, but not limited to, the devastation caused by the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut, Rai says he is working to save the viability of Lebanon as a country, which exists to a large extent because of the role of the Maronite church in the early 20th century. Rai invoked the legacy of his predecessor, Elias Hoyek, who persuaded France in 1920 to establish predominantly Christian “Greater Lebanon” as a separate state from Syria and established the role played by religious leaders at the start of Lebanon’s independence in the 1940s.

Like his modern predecessors, Rai tries to align himself with popular anger while cultivating his role as an intermediary among Lebanon’s turbulent elite, notably in the standoff between Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun, whose Christian party is allied with Hezbollah. “Greater Lebanon has not failed,” the patriarch said in an interview with Alhurra television in March. “But the politicians failed while Lebanon stayed and lasted for 100 years.” However, when he spoke to Alhurra, Rai objected to the slogans “down with the regime” or “down with the president”.

Clearly, Rai is not a revolutionary, but rather practices the conservative realpolitik in which Levantine faith leaders – Muslims and Christians – have long sought to excel. Rai was elected Patriarch in March 2011 as the Syrian civil war broke out. He warned against “genocide and sectarian warfare” and warned against Islamism if the Assad family were toppled. During his tour of the United States, the new patriarch canceled a stopover in Washington after failing to secure a meeting with then-US President Barack Obama weeks after the prelate publicly expressed his distrust of the Arab Spring.

Tellingly, supporters of the patriarch chanted, “The people want regime reform,” at their February rally – a surprisingly watered-down version of the Arab Spring slogan: “The people want the regime to fall.” Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le Jour reported that the patriarch wants above all to avoid a constituent assembly that would lessen the weight of Christian political representation in the state – a move that Hezbollah chief Nasrallah has suggested he could support by establishing a three-way division between Sunnis, Shiites and Christians who would reflect the demography of Lebanon. This would uproot the principle of Islamic-Christian parity within the government enshrined in the Taif agreements which ended the civil war in Lebanon, in particular by reserving half of the parliamentary seats for Christians even if Muslims today represent a clear majority of the population.


Lebanese protesters who took to the streets in their thousands during the October 2019 uprising fought to overcome precisely these endless sectarian calculations by demanding that the entire ruling class withdraw. But the collapse of the economy and government has paved the way for traditional elites to reassert their role in the political vacuum and find constituencies keen to protect themselves. The growing confrontation between Bkerke and Hezbollah demonstrates that the political initiative is back with the ruling establishment, even as its authority is damaged and diminished.

This plays into what the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi has dubbed the “game of trust” that traditional leaders play in Lebanon – where each actor claims to support the implementation of reforms for a civil and non-denominational state, but practices it. political bigotry as long as its rivals within the elite do so. Lebanon’s Shiite religious leader, Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan, recently said that political confessionalism has failed, but until the country has a full civil status, every sect must be represented and protected within the system. His comments came shortly after the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council accused the Rai of unfairly targeting its supporters, just as the West is “attacking” Shiite groups across the region. Rai, however, has shown all signs of intensifying his campaign, most recently accusing Hezbollah of attempting to drag Lebanon into war with Israel and insinuating that his supporters are more loyal to Iran than to their homeland. .

As always, the political situation in Lebanon remains hostage to a larger regional conflict between allies of the United States and the Iran-led camp. Rai’s calls for “neutrality” in this context are illusory as long as there is no meaningful detente between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel. The patriarch’s initiative seeks to restore a political balance in Lebanon on the basis of the Taif agreements which no longer exist since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 and the organization of Lebanese politics in pro and anti-camps. Hezbollah. The civil society movements behind the October 2019 uprising – which believe in replacing this broken sectarian system with a non-denominational state – aimed to overcome this same puzzle of alignment around Hezbollah.

The real meaning of the Rai initiative is historical. When the State of Lebanon was founded, it was, to paraphrase Salibi, a country without a nation; it was a state that was largely created at the behest of the Maronite Patriarch to realize the historic vision of the church from the earth. A century of shared history has largely rendered these doubts about Lebanon’s identity obsolete. Indeed, what surprises is not the persistence of sectarianism in Lebanon but the success of Lebanon in taking shape as a nation despite the archaic confessionalism practiced by the elites who control the country. The tragedy is that history has largely reversed Salibi’s maxim: Lebanon is a nation without a state.


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