By Arab News
By Peter Welby*
The former Maronite patriarch of Antioch, the religious leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians, died on Sunday, three days before his 99th birthday, according to a statement by the Maronite Church. Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir had played an instrumental role in the resolution to Lebanon’s civil war, and in securing the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country in 2005.
Born in 1920, the only boy among six children, Sfeir studied philosophy and theology at St. Joseph’s University in Beirut, before being ordained to the Maronite priesthood shortly before his 30th birthday.
He returned to his hometown of Rayfoun, north of Beirut, to serve as a priest until 1955. He was also appointed secretary to the Diocese of Damascus, which served the approximately 4,000 Maronite Christians in Syria, an experience that would serve him well later in his career.
Sfeir was swiftly identified as suitable for promotion, and by 1961 he had been consecrated bishop and appointed patriarchal vicar, a deputy to the patriarch. This succession of roles gave him an insight into key parts of the Maronite Church, and the politics of Lebanon and Syria, which would later serve him well.
His time as patriarchal vicar saw the rise in tensions in Lebanon that led to the outbreak of civil war in 1975, and in 1976 he welcomed the intervention of Syria, which prevented Maronite forces from being overwhelmed by Muslim factions. But as it became apparent that Syria wished to do more in Lebanon than simply keep the peace, Sfeir turned against its role.
In April 1986, he was elected patriarch of Antioch and all the East by the synod of the Maronite Church, a position that would be crucial in gathering support for the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in 1989.
His support for the agreement came at some cost to his support among Lebanese Maronites, as it provided for Syria’s continued influence in Lebanon, and downgraded the position of the latter’s Maronite community from the pre-war status quo. It is thought that the Vatican leaned on the patriarch in order to bring the civil war to an end (the Maronite Church is under the authority of the Catholic pope).
Sfeir’s opposition to fighting between the different Christian factions had already led to a rift with the prominent Maronite Gen. Michel Aoun (now Lebanon’s president). Aoun went on to oppose the Taif Agreement.
Following the announcement of Sfeir’s death, Aoun released a statement praising him for his “defense of Lebanon’s sovereignty and its independence.” Sfeir’s opposition to intra-Christian rivalries remained a feature of his public profile for the rest of his patriarchate.
Following the war, he devoted his energies to securing reconciliation in Lebanon, particularly between the Maronites and the Druze. The Druze civil war leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father was assassinated early in the war, tweeted that Sfeir was a “patriarch of independence, reconciliation, peace and love.”
Sfeir continued to oppose the Syrian presence, most vocally in the early 2000s. He is regarded as an instrumental figure in securing international support for Syria’s withdrawal both before and after the Syrian-sponsored assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Sfeir’s opposition to Syrian interference in Lebanon continued after the 2005 withdrawal. His refusal to visit Syria has been contrasted to the current patriarch’s visits, most recently in 2015, by the latter’s opponents.
Sfeir retired as patriarch in 2011 on the grounds of old age. He was replaced by Bechara Boutros Rai. Sfeir was fluent in Arabic and French, and spoke a number of other languages including English, Aramaic, Latin and Syriac. He wrote several books on liturgical and theological issues, and within the Maronite Church was behind a reform of the liturgy in 1992.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby