Thursday, June 9, 2011

Our omnipatriarch, an early assessment

Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai is not a man of few words. Since being elected to office he has issued myriad statements on the events of the day.

And if those are not sufficient, you can still hear his taped interventions on Tele Lumiere from the period when he was a bishop. The patriarch is ubiquitous, which is not always a good thing.
It’s no secret that Rai very much likes his politics. His spirituality notwithstanding, the patriarch arrived in Bkirki when the Maronite Church desperately needed to depoliticize its clergy. Instead, he has been far more vocal on political matters than his predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who was criticized at the end, unfairly, for presiding over a divided Maronite political class. If Rai continues in this vein, he, too, may succumb to the Maronites’ ample contradictions.

To Rai’s credit, he has brought Maronite leaders together in what are early steps in a communal reconciliation effort. This is valuable, and the fact that he twice hosted Samir Geagea and Sleiman Franjieh under the same roof is an achievement. What will emerge from the initiative is unclear, but the patriarch’s role is to act as a shepherd; he can’t be blamed if rivalries among his discordant flock endure.

More generally, Rai has injected dynamism into the Church, which Maronites have welcomed. He is everywhere, an omnipatriarch: one day in Rome, another in Bkirki, a third in Jbeil, making this comment or that, pushing for a new government, taking a stance on the Constitution, presiding over the naming of new bishops, and so on.

How very useful, but where Rai has come up short is in placing his endeavors within a cohesive strategy. Is his priority to reform the Maronite Church, which needs to be cleaned out with a large broom? Is it to be a mentor to or promoter of communal politicians? Is it to act as a bridge to the Muslim communities? We don’t know. Rai is so hyperactive that he risks overreaching, in the end getting little done.

An inexperienced new patriarch is entitled to make mistakes. Rai did so early on when he effectively endorsed Ziyad Baroud’s return to the Cabinet before a congratulatory delegation led by the interior minister. This came at a stage when Baroud’s future was a bone of contention between President Michel Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun in the government formation process. The patriarch was doing Sleiman a favor, but it was tactically unnecessary when one of Rai’s aims, ultimately, should be to rise above Maronite politicians.

Then in March Rai showed poor timing when he declared that he would visit Syria later this year, for religious purposes. The patriarch was hasty. Someone attuned to politics should have better grasped that his visit would be interpreted by the Assad regime as a sign of esteem, one that it had done nothing to earn, just weeks after it had engineered the collapse of the Hariri government, confirming Syrian indifference to a sovereign Lebanon. By so doing, Rai also needlessly dissociated himself from Sfeir, who had, laudably, refused to go to Syria because he disapproved of its behavior on the sovereignty issue.

Rai could not have guessed that at around the same time he announced his plans, the Assad regime would begin its violent repression in Daraa. But it should have been a lesson to him that it’s sometimes better to consolidate one’s position first and wait before wrestling with controversial matters. As Rai surveys the carnage in Syria, he must be wondering why he made a commitment that he cannot possibly want to implement today under Assad rule.

The most egregious of Rai’s assertions has involved Taif. In late May, after meeting with the Aounist parliamentarian Nemetallah Abi Nasr, the patriarch said of Taif that it “is not a holy document that descended from heaven.” He remarked that the accord “has flaws and needs to be reformed,” before adding that the powers of the president had to be expanded. “We are with the equal division of shares between Christians and Muslims but we do not support it when the president has no power to make a decision,” Rai observed.

It’s a pity that even the head of the Maronite Church can still be living under the illusion that Shiites and Sunnis will readily surrender political power to a Maronite president when they spent over a decade of conflict taking that power away, and now consider the Maronites over-represented in Parliament. Taif is not holy, but since Rai is willing to juggle the profane and the divine, he should know that it is reckless to open the door on presidential power from a position of resentment, by boldly doubting the constitutional foundations of our political system. That’s because amending Taif will cut both ways.

What is Rai’s point? If it is to merely return more authority to the president, then what is to prevent the Muslims from responding, quite legitimately, that Taif needs to be implemented fully, which means abolishing political confessionalism? That’s a good idea, but it’s not one the patriarch welcomes. It makes no sense for Rai to selectively focus on Christian interests and shatter the consensus around Taif, then assume that non-Christians will applaud this.

On the other hand, if Rai drew on his disapproval of Taif to gain tactical advantage by currying favor among his coreligionists, then his words were even more embarrassing. Patriarchs are not here to play petty politics, particularly on so essential a matter as constitutional reform. Nothing whatsoever obliged Rai to take a position on Taif at this time. His recommendations were short-sighted and gratuitous.

Lebanon’s bane is that clergymen dream of being politicians and politicians dream of being clergymen. Rai came in at a pivotal moment for Maronites, one of existential importance. The community’s paramount challenges are internal revival and the adoption of a radically new approach in its relations with Muslims. Rai should address these and abandon the more sordid byways of Lebanese politics.

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