Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Patriarch Ra'i's Greatest Challenge

This editorial was published in The Daily Star on 16/03/2011
A glance at the resume of Lebanon’s new Maronite patriarch reveals a supreme adeptness for matters both spiritual and legal. A university professor and long-serving Pontifical Council member, Bishop Beshara Rai must now find space for a hardhat next to his mortarboard and miter. Bridges need building. 

Rai assumes the post of patriarch with the country in the grip of several testing quandaries. The political deadlock, which has entered its third month, will require all his evident ability as diplomatic negotiator – overly cozy with no faction yet ready for dialogue with all.

A schism among Lebanese Christians persists. Split politically and at seemingly intractable loggerheads, Rai has taken on the unenviable task of persuading respective Christian leaders that the sect will either heal together, or disintegrate separately. The chasm in Christian political priorities has, over recent years, led to a decrease in the sect’s influence and an increase in the emigration of bright young congregations, who flee Lebanon at an alarming annual rate. Rai’s skills as communicator will need to be at their sharpest in persuading leaders that being Lebanese and Christian is more important to the collective than the fickle force of outside states.

The link between all Lebanese sects needs tightening. Irrespective of religion, national unity is a dogma all politicians claim to follow. Rai must endeavor to close gaps between various sects, as persuader more than pedagogue, as has always been the patriarch’s role. The doors of the patriarchate have historically remained open to all faiths and the new head of Christian Maronites must know now is the time to keep them ajar.

Praise must be given to Rai’s predecessor, Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who, even while still in possession of all faculties, decided at 91 that he should pass the baton to a more youthful candidate. His years of service and his tireless efforts to achieve Lebanon’s independence must never be forgotten.

With his election Tuesday, Rai has risen to a post that is more than solely religious; the Maronite patriarch speaks for all Lebanon. The country that Pope John Paul II once labelled “a message” of coexistence cannot lapse further into factionalism and disunity. If Lebanon is to remain a beacon for freedom, democracy and independence throughout the region, Rai will play a significant role. The tasks are not easy. They are necessary. 

The new patriarch’s main asset before entering Bkirki was his ability to speak the truth. His priority while inside is to persuade Lebanon’s estranged politicians to heed it.

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