Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lebanon: For Beshara Ra'i, The Headaches Begin

By Michael Young 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 17/03/2011

Bishop Beshara Rai, who was elected Maronite patriarch on Tuesday to succeed Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, has declared that his tenure would rest on a foundation of “partnership and love.” Yet Rai will face four major challenges within the Maronite community after he begins his duties, and each one will test that promise to its limits.

Rai’s first priority will be to rejuvenate the Maronite Church. From an ecclesiastical perspective, Rai, who is no spring chicken himself, will play a pivotal role in promoting a younger clergy that can take in hand the institution during the coming decade and beyond. He will also be called upon to replace those bishops who have passed the retirement age. More fundamentally, Rai will have to ensure that the new bishops inspire more confidence than many of those on their way out. The church has exacerbated a deep crisis in Maronite confidence, not least because many of its senior clergymen are perceived as corrupt, worldly, divided and under the thumb of politicians. 

Politics has had the most divisive influence on the Maronite Church. The church is valuable to the political class and other Lebanese social forces because of its myriad, powerful networks. Beyond its spiritual capabilities, the church’s ability to shape attitudes at all levels, through its parishes, educational facilities, and social services, is second to none. That is why Rai will not find it easy to transcend politics – indeed he has played the political game as intensely as others. He will have to discover the right balance between accepting the church’s innate pluralism and unifying it through a cohesive spiritual agenda while limiting the politicians’ sway over the institution.  

Rai’s second principal challenge will be to work on reuniting a Maronite community that has been at perennial odds with itself. The task will be comparable to herding cats. Which is why the new patriarch may renounce the quasi-unachievable ambition of making the community speak more or less with one voice, and instead devise a strategy to rally his coreligionists around specific themes. One of these must be the greater isolation of the clergy from politics. Another, to bring an ossified institution in tune with its environment, especially its Muslim environment, and introduce mechanisms to remove older clergymen. Rai may want to consider setting an age limit for patriarchs, and lower the retirement age for bishops. 

This challenge will be an arduous one, given the third challenge the new patriarch will face: Michel Aoun. From his perch as the head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, Aoun has sought, since the parliamentary elections of 2009, to demolish all alternative centers of Maronite power. The attacks and humiliations that he visited on Rai’s predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, and his continuing endeavor to marginalize President Michel Sleiman, are flagrant illustrations. Another is Aoun’s demand for the lion’s share of Christian ministerial portfolios, as well as a blocking third, in a new Mikati government.

Aoun cannot be happy with Rai’s election. The new patriarch is believed to lean toward Sleiman, who hails from Jbeil, which Rai represented as bishop. Rai is also someone determined and striving, who has no intention of being hastened to the sidelines by Michel Aoun. For now, the patriarch enjoys the authority that accompanies his new office, leaving Aoun little room to criticize him without risking discrediting himself. This will likely lead to a waiting game as each man sizes up the other. However, if Rai initiates a process to narrow Maronite differences, he may open himself up to Aoun’s broadsides. That is why the patriarch will have to tread carefully.

The fourth, and most sensitive challenge Rai will face is to reconcile the Maronites with Lebanon itself. For many in the community, communal demographics are a chronicle of Maronite irrelevance foretold. The most optimistic estimates suggest that Christians in general make up a third of the Lebanese population. Where Aoun has exploited Christian fears to rally his followers against the Sunni community and its leadership, Samir Geagea has pursued an alliance with Saad Hariri and the Sunnis against Hezbollah. However, the Maronites have gained little by having a leg in both camps. Their inability to stake out an independent position to preserve their common interests has only hardened their minority status in a Lebanon shaped by the dynamics of the Sunni-Shiite relationship.

Like Sfeir, Rai will have to work within the confines of the Taif agreement and the post-Taif Constitution. Taif calls for the abolition of political confessionalism, and for now Christians regard this as a near-existential threat, since one of its consequences would be to eliminate the 50-50 ratio of Christian-Muslim seats in Parliament. But the idea won’t go away. Rai, if he doesn’t want to see his community debilitated by an inflexible defense of its prerogatives, will have to conceive ways of making this eventuality more palatable to Maronites. In fact, he will have to encourage the community to instigate the Taif reforms on its own terms, in that way ensuring that political change is not one day imposed against Christian wishes.

This will create a paradox: even as Rai tries to isolate the church from politics, the church will remain the major potential conduit for transmitting, and legitimizing, Maronite concessions in the context of a consensual political reform project. But this difficulty will be just one of the very many the patriarch will confront. Rai’s vow to rely on love will more likely soon elicit tough love, while partnership is an elusive goal the patriarch will have to convince others to embrace. 

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).

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