Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rai rumor tells us little

For years a lubricious rumor had circulated about Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai. A Lebanese author in Paris, Antoine Basbous, has, so to speak, just torn the covers away by putting it all in print. Regardless of whether the rumor is true, the method of publicizing it remains questionable, as is Basbous’ interpretation of its significance.

In a new book, Le Tsunami Arabe, published by Fayard, Basbous argues that Rai’s recent public endorsement of the Syrian regime is a likely result of the patriarch’s being blackmailed by Damascus. Basbous was the Lebanese Forces representative in France, where he now heads the Observatoire des Pays Arabes. He describes an incident when Rai was still bishop of Jbeil: allegedly, the onetime Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, had Rai filmed communing rather too tenderly with a member of his flock, and subsequently used this against the clergyman to shape his political attitudes. 

Is the story true? If it is, Rai would hardly be the first priest to have a fondness for the fairer sex, even less so in a Maronite Church where, at a certain level of the hierarchy, married men are allowed to become clergymen. Moreover, Rai’s inherent narcissism may predispose him to such acts, whereby every conquest confirms the validity of his self-love. 

However, idle speculation aside, the reality is that Basbous offers no solid evidence to substantiate his claim. Publishing a rumor does not make it any less of a rumor. It is surprising that a respectable publishing house like Fayard failed to demand more from the author by way of proof. The charge, if true, is a serious one. Given the influence of the Maronite patriarch on Lebanese politics, it merits investigation. Yet by tossing the information out as he does, Basbous actually diminishes its importance, so that the story will titillate without otherwise informing us whether Rai is indeed in Syria’s pocket.

There is a second problem with Basbous’ rationale. Why assume that Rai’s defense of President Bashar al-Assad, or for that matter Hezbollah’s weapons, has to be a consequence of blackmail? It is unfortunate, but when the patriarch implies that Maronites are better off allying themselves with other Middle Eastern minorities—Alawites or Shia—against the Sunnis and the prospect of a revived Sunni Islamism, he is not at great odds with the Maronite mainstream.

There are certainly Maronites who disapprove of the mad notion of an “alliance of minorities.” However, there are also many who remain so fearful of their minority status amid a Sunni majority in the Arab world, and who see Islamism everywhere, that they are willing to pursue the most ruinous of policies. We can, legitimately, condemn Rai for his pitiable short-sightedness, and for siding with the criminal dictatorial enterprise in Damascus against the most basic principles of his own faith. But this may not make him such a renegade as Basbous imagines.

Even Rai’s apparent disregard of the traditional outlook of Bkirki doesn’t tell us much. Yes, the new patriarch is very different from his predecessor, but there are not a few Maronite bishops who have tended to share Rai’s perspective against those of Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Bkirki is a house of many mansions (and given the wealth amassed by the senior clergy, you can just as well take the sentence literally), so that it is not always easy to determine which political approach best expresses the consensus in the Maronite Church.

And for that matter, what is the consensus in the Vatican? The tortuous ways of the Catholic Church are sometimes difficult to follow, but by most accounts Rai’s election was actively supported by Rome. In remarks several weeks ago, the papal nuncio seemed to back up the patriarch, despite his controversial pronouncements. Even if that was to be expected, we can assume there is a current in the Church that would agree with the way Rai seeks to safeguard the Middle East’s Christians.

Rai has been less verbose lately, so perhaps he received advice from the Vatican to be more careful. But that does not mean that the leadership of the Church is upset with him. After all, Pope Benedict XVI has made the protection of Arab Christians a priority, and earlier this year was sternly taken to task by Al-Azhar when he criticized the Egyptian government for not doing enough to protect Coptic Christians following a New Year’s bomb attack against a church.

Rai fits well into this ecclesiastical ambiance. His recent visit to Iraq, to bolster the Christian communities there, must have been welcomed at the Vatican. Benedict is no fool. He no doubt realizes that Arab Christians will not survive if they remain isolated from their predominantly Sunni surroundings. And yet there is a profoundly conservative side to the man that may explain why he has not pushed harder for a rapprochement between Christians and Sunnis, and why the Vatican has reacted with such shameful reticence to the Arab uprisings. 

Neither Bkirki nor Rome has progressive impulses. The Catholic Church is headed by a man who has made the containment of change a hallmark of his tenure at the Vatican, both as pope and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. The sad truth is that Syria may not have needed to blackmail Bechara al-Rai to elicit his favorable words on Assad's rule. The patriarch’s fear of revolutionary transformation aligns with that of the institution he serves.

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