Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lebanon’s Troublesome Political Priest

By Michael Young

 Patriarch Beshara Rai

If reverse had multiple gears, Beshara Rai would be shifting into fourth about now. Since his return from France last weekend, the Maronite patriarch has tried to qualify what he said during his trip, while blaming everyone but himself for his irresponsible statements. With bad grace (pun intended), on Tuesday Rai declared that his remarks had been taken out of context, probably intentionally.
Here was a useful insight into the man – a readiness to resort to self-pity and demagoguery when cornered. In recent days Rai and his bishops have said much that is incoherent to detract from the patriarch’s endorsement of the Assad regime, his implicit willingness to accept Hezbollah’s weapons until the Palestinian issue is resolved, and his fear that if the Syrian opposition were to win, this would profit Sunni Islamists. We’ve been told that Rai was misunderstood; that the partial rendition of his words did not reflect his real views; that the Maronite Church’s decisions are taken after deep reflection, unlike the superficiality of those criticizing the patriarch, and so on.

Perhaps Rai was misunderstood, but if so, he was misunderstood by those on all sides of the political spectrum. The followers of Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh have rushed to the patriarch’s defense, as have members of Hezbollah. What can we conclude from this ecclesiastical mess, beyond its immediate political ramifications?
Rai’s problems greatly transcend the split between March 14 and March 8 and the Aounists. The patriarch did alienate the supporters of March 14, but in that sense he was only as guilty as his predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who took positions that clearly leaned toward those of March 14. True, Sfeir’s opinions were more attuned to the traditional outlook of the Maronite Church – its support for national sovereignty, its rejection of armed groups outside the control of the state, and, specifically, its hostility to Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. But it is equally true that before stepping down, Sfeir presided over a hopelessly divided community, and that this was a black mark against him as far as the Vatican was concerned.

Then again, Rai took only six months to wreak havoc. For those without strong political affiliations, the patriarch sinned in three ways. He foolishly and unnecessarily split the Maronites, when one of his principal duties is to unify them; he gratuitously insulted the Sunnis by presuming that all they could produce was Islamists; and he implicated his community in a foreign crisis when he was under no obligation to do so. Worse, he placed Maronites on the side of a Syrian regime that has been engaged in barbaric repression.
It is astonishing that Rai could not have foreseen where his comments would lead. The patriarch is notoriously verbose, and plainly prefers his politics to religion. However, surveying the wreckage of the last few days, we can conclude that he is really not particularly good at politics. Rai was reportedly told by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that President Bashar Assad is finished, therefore that Rai had to prepare Christians for the aftermath. That the patriarch persisted in bolstering the Assads after that exchange was a sign of hubris from a denizen of the sacristy who yearns for the governor’s chair.

Some outraged Maronites are seeking to persuade Rome to push for Rai’s resignation. That’s no solution. It would only throw the Maronite Church into disarray while resolving none of its outstanding problems. And who would replace the patriarch? The upper echelons of the clergy form a vale of mediocrity and moral wretchedness. Rai may be contentious, but he’s better than most of his bishops – as condensed a compilation of shifty characters as one is likely to uncover.
Instead, Rome must press Rai to play less politics and reform his institution. The Maronite Church is being torn apart by greed and petty factionalism. What it needs urgently is an injection of less politicized, credible, younger clergy to replace the gargoyles in office. If Rai and his acolytes looked closely, they would see that while Maronites will go through the motions of their religion and fiercely defend its traditions, when one digs deeper, they also have profound contempt for the corruptions of their higher clerics. The alacrity with which many of Rai’s coreligionists turned against him was a sign that the church does not enjoy unlimited credit among the faithful.

If the patriarch wants to rebuild his reputation, the only way for him to do so is to convince believers that he can rejuvenate their church. That means giving Maronites confidence in the future rather than playing on their fears of political and demographic decline. It means thinking in the long term how the community can coexist peacefully with both Sunnis and Shiites, not one or the other. It means ensuring that the vast network of institutions that the church controls – schools, universities, social institutions, sporting clubs and much more – serves those ends. And it means defending pluralism, liberty, democracy and openness, for only a society imbued with such rights and values can safeguard the Christian presence in Lebanon.
For believers, and even unbelievers, a church that sustains a butcher is a contradiction. What kind of sordid religious establishment is it that takes the side of a despot against his own people? How can Rai pontificate about Christian love and communion, then with a straight face warn of the potential dangers if the Assads are removed? If he’s unsure, then the patriarch has the option of remaining silent. Rai mentioned the fate of Iraq’s Christians as a path to be avoided by Maronites. Unfortunately, that community is suffering today precisely because it was identified with Saddam Hussein’s brutality. Is that the outcome Rai seeks for Syria’s Christians, or Lebanon’s?

Beshara Rai would do himself and us all an immense favor by pausing, taking a break from politics, and exploiting his ubiquity by reconnecting with, and listening to, his Maronite base. Maronites expect more from their church than a patriarch who divides them and bishops who despoil them. In this time of uncertainty, the church, for better or worse, has a role to play in communal renewal. Rai may not be the best man to lead that effort, but it’s his job to begin trying.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 15/09/2011
-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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