Thursday, May 8, 2014

The winters of our Maronite patriarch

Whether one agrees with Beshara Rai’s decision to visit Israel and greet the pope, the Maronite patriarch appears to have a boundless capacity to place himself in situations that end up demeaning him and his office and that harm his community.

The patriarch Tuesday addressed the uproar over his visit to Jerusalem by mentioning his religious mandate and leaving politics to the side – odd for a man devoured by a desire to be a serious political player while his church awaits much-needed reform.

Rai justified his upcoming visit by pointing out, “I am the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of regions expanding from Turkey to Mauritania, Saudi Arabia to Iran. It is my duty to welcome the pope in any country in these regions.” He went on to argue, “ Jerusalem is our city as Christians before anyone else, and it is an Arab city. I am going there to say this is our city. We have [religious] authority there, and we have people who follow our church. I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.”

While there was typical grandiloquence in these remarks, Rai had a defensible point: The Catholic Church has long contested Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, which is a city for all its communities. By going there, therefore, Rai only drives the latter point home. In contrast, if he were to refuse to travel to Jerusalem, that would mean that he has conceded to Israel a final say over whoever visits and whatever happens in the city.

Perhaps, but the broader problem is that Rai has often failed to see, or has refused to see, how his decisions implicate the broader Maronite community that he represents.

When Rai says that he will not meet with Israeli officials, he is acting like a simpleton. It’s not the fact that he will meet with anyone that makes the difference; it’s that a man of his stature has decided to travel to Israel in the first place. When he visited Damascus in February 2013, Rai did not shake the hands of Bashar Assad’s pilots who had bombed civilians, nor did the Syrian regime ask him to. It was satisfied that Rai had simply come to Syria, after his predecessor, Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, had refused to do so, even when Pope John Paul II visited the country, and it played this up as an endorsement of Assad rule.

Why, at a moment when Lebanon’s Maronites are already being accused of sympathizing with the Assad regime, does Rai need to lend weight to another indiscriminate charge that has long circulated, namely that Maronites are supportive of Israel? Neither accusation is especially true, even if Rai foolishly defended the Syrian regime in the past, but both have taken on a life of their own over the years, and have served only to isolate the community from its Sunni or Shiite surroundings.

What would be lost if Rai did not go to Israel? Essentially nothing, and Pope Francis would doubtless understand the patriarch’s position, just as Pope John Paul did Sfeir’s refusal to accompany him on his Syrian visit. But where Sfeir had the stature of a patriarch, avoiding moves that might contradict his stated principles and belittle his office, Rai has time and again walked head-on into the wall, losing respect as a consequence.

Take the patriarch’s position on the presidential election. In theory, Rai was right to insist that an election take place, and he sought to ensure this by repeatedly urging the main candidates not to undermine the vote and meeting with them to get this point across. But in the end, Michel Aoun and Sleiman Frangieh ignored him when they refused to go to the election sessions in Parliament. Rai’s authority, not for the first time, looked tenuous, when it would have been more advisable for him to make a few general statements and leave it there.

But that wasn’t enough. With Parliament unable to choose a successor to Michel Sleiman, the patriarch has reportedly sought to secure an extension of the president’s term to avoid a vacuum. So, the man who only a few weeks ago was calling for a presidential election as a constitutional necessity, today is trying to finagle an extended term for Sleiman, intervening with the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, to bring this about.

Of course Berri, knowing that Hezbollah wants Sleiman out, made no commitments, and Rai, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of regions expanding from Turkey to Mauritania, Saudi Arabia to Iran, has descended to the level of political wheeler-dealer. What, other than Rai’s vanity, can justify such ill-conceived behavior? Not only is Rai interpreting the role of the patriarch well beyond its boundaries, he also happens to be politically careless and impulsive.

For someone who seeks, or claims to seek, a revitalization of the Maronite community, Rai has done it all wrong. Ultimately, what will help the Christians in general and the Maronites in particular is a better understanding of how to interact with the region. That’s not at all to say that Christians must behave as a frightened minority and mindlessly echo the platitudes of the Muslim majority, itself divided between Sunnis and Shiites.

Rather, Lebanon’s Christians must adopt and embody general principles – adherence to the Arab consensus on Israel, a refusal to approve of anything that undermines Lebanese sovereignty and stability, a rejection of repression and violence and support for pluralism and democracy. Above all, Rai should stop trying to be an omnipatriarch – a cleric, politician, world traveler and diplomat all wrapped into one. He should stick to what he knows, otherwise Maronites will continue to pay for his errors.

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