The death of former Maronite cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir on Sunday has shaken Lebanon’s largest Christian sect to the core. The 98-year-old spiritual leader, born on 15 May 1920, had played a pivotal role in shaping Lebanon’s modern history.
Sfeir died after battling a long illness, but he will always be remembered for his often witty and humorous comments. He was an Arabic language and philosophy teacher by profession and was elected patriarch of the Maronite Church in 1986 and invested as a cardinal in 1994.
Until his resignation in 2011, Sfeir was an “icon of the patriarchy, leader of the Maronite Church and a national symbol,” the Maronite Church said in a statement.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun also lamented the loss of Sfeir. “The nation will miss a man who always defended Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and dignity,” Aoun said.
Sfeir in fact was as old as Lebanon, as he was born in the same year that France proclaimed the establishment of the Lebanese state with its present boundaries.
The former cardinal will be remembered for the role he played during the last years of Lebanon’s civil war, the repercussions of which the country is still suffering from.
He was elected patriarch before the end of the war between the Christian sects that Aoun launched against the Syrian army. The conflicts, better known as the “War of Liberation”, later saw Aoun exiled for 15 years.
Sfeir backed the Taif Accords that brought Lebanon’s civil war to an end in 1989. He voiced harsh criticisms of them later on, however.
His support of former president René Moawad attracted the wrath of Aoun supporters, as Aoun was the then head of the military government that opposed the Taif Accords. Angry pro-Aoun Christians stormed the patriarchal residence and assaulted Sfeir.
Sfeir was later elected to head the Maronite Church, and he met with the Sunni mufti of the country, Hassan Khaled, in an attempt to build bridges between Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims and more effective communication than the sound of weapons.
Khaled and Sfeir largely succeeded in their endeavours, and Khaled’s later assassination made Sfeir even more adamant to end the civil war. He had a strong relationship with former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri at the time, with Al-Hariri acting as the godfather of the Saudi-backed Taif Accords, managing to sell the agreement to Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces bloc.
Depression reigned over Lebanon’s Christian community after the Taif Accords, when Christian political heavyweights were either imprisoned or exiled. Coupled with Sfeir’s dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the agreement, the Maronite patriarchal residence turned into one of the few opposition platforms in the country.
The former cardinal also played an unforgettable role after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000, when in September of that year the Maronite Council, headed by Sfeir, called for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon and demanded that the country regain its sovereignty.
Sfeir’s stand fuelled countless similar demands, and Syria withdrew its army from Lebanon after the assassination of Al-Hariri. In 2004, Sfeir vehemently opposed attempts by Damascus to extend the term of then president Emile Lahoud.
Al-Hariri had joined the camp opposing the Syrian presence in Lebanon, saying that the patriarch’s position was adopted by all Lebanese.
However, Sfeir stood up against the 14 March Movement that opposed Syria when it revealed its desire to topple Lahoud and insisted on the need to respect state institutions and the position of president.
“His biggest struggle was to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which we all thought was impossible because of the divisions in the country. But he worked on it steadily, objectively, and meticulously,” Sfeir’s biographer Antoine Saad said.
“He resisted Syria’s hegemony by peaceful means, working on weaving the national unity that was capable of ending it.”
Sfeir repeatedly refused to visit Syria, even when Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II made a trip to Syria in 2001, saying he would only do so when the two countries established relations on an equal footing.
Two years after Sfeir retired, his successor Bechara Boutros travelled to Damascus in 2013, becoming the first Lebanese patriarch to visit Syria since Lebanon’s independence from French colonial rule in 1943.
After the Syrian army had left Lebanon, Sfeir did not hesitate to criticise the Shia group Hizbullah, backed by Tehran and Damascus, for refusing to give up its weapons. In 2010, Sfeir said the group was an “abnormal case”, stressing that arms should be in the possession of the state alone.
Sfeir’s stance was not welcomed by the majority of Christians in Lebanon, particularly supporters of Aoun, the then leader of the Free Patriotic Movement that was allied with Hizbullah. S
feir’s opponents called for “the non-interference of the patriarch in politics” and accused him of siding with the 14 March Movement at their expense.
Sfeir always tried to build bridges with other sects, and he brokered the Chouf Mountain Agreement between the Maronites and Walid Jumblatt’s Druze, ending a chapter of violence between the two groups.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Lebanon’s peace-broker gone