Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 5 Table of Contents
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May 2003 

dossier Dossier: Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir
76th Patriarch of the Maronite Church

by Gary C. Gambill

Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir
During a lavish dinner attended by the heads of Lebanon's security services in early March, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Gen. Rustom Ghazali, raised his glass and proposed a toast to Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronite Christian Church.[1] Ghazali's tribute to the spiritual leader of Lebanon's largest Christian community would have been unimaginable two years ago, when Sfeir spearheaded an opposition coalition calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and toured the United States, seeking American assistance.

Today, Sfeir has largely abandoned his public persona as impassioned defender of Lebanese independence and instead expresses the kind of obsequious, exaggerated praise for Syrian President Bashar Assad normally heard from close Syrian allies. Ironically, the American support for Lebanese sovereignty that Sfeir so eloquently requested two years ago has recently begun to materialize, but the prelate now maintains that US pressure on Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon is malevolent and unjustified. The dramatic transformation in Sfeir's position on Syria is the outgrowth of a multiplicity of factors, including pressure from the Vatican, inter-Christian political dynamics, and - above all - skillful Syrian diplomacy.


Most historians believe that the Maronites originated as a Monothelite Christian sect in the Orontes valley of Syria and were driven to the Lebanese highlands by Byzantine or Arab Muslim invaders sometime between the seventh and eleventh centuries.[2] Whatever its origins, the Maronite Church was well established when the Crusaders reached Mount Lebanon in the twelfth century and adopted doctrinal communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1180 (a union which did not become institutionalized until the sixteenth century). The Maronite church preserved its own traditions, such as the use of Syriac as its liturgical language and - most importantly - the selection of its own patriarch.

Historically, the patriarch has been regarded by his constituents as more than just a religious leader. The Maronite clergy's ownership of most land in Mount Lebanon gave it a degree of economic independence from temporal leaders that far surpassed that of other Christian sects in the Levant. The Ottoman practice of according temporal power to the spiritual heads of religious minorities further reinforced the patriarch's stature.

Although nominally subservient to Rome, the patriarch is chosen by the Council of Maronite Bishops. As one prominent theologian notes, the patriarch was seen as "the sole religious leader of his people."[3] Until a 1736 Synod established formal dioceses, Maronite bishops were considered representatives of the patriarch. Important decisions by the patriarch are today subject to approval by the Council, but he still wields considerable power and, according to one scholar, "represents in his person the entire Maronite Church."[4]

Unlike other Christian minorities in the Middle East, the Maronites lived predominantly in a single compact territory - constituting a majority of the local population in most of the areas they inhabited. This demographic concentration, combined with existential fear of the surrounding Islamic world, produced a unique form of proto-nationalist identity forged by the church. The clergy's control over the educational system, as Marie-Christine Aulas trenchantly observed, "gave it ideological tutelage over the entire community."[5] Educated at Catholic institutions in Europe, this clerical elite transported Western cultural and political ideas back to Mount Lebanon. These influences cultivated a strong ethnic self-image of the Maronite community as "the eastern frontier of the Christian West."[6]

As custodian of the community's religious and educational institutions, the patriarch occupied a position of unparalleled authority in managing the community's relations with the outside world. After World War I, Patriarch Elias Huwayyik headed a Lebanese delegation to the Versailles peace talks in Paris and persuaded French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to proclaim the establishment of a Lebanese state, under French tutelage, in 1920.

Maronite patriarchs continued to play a significant role in politics after Lebanon became independent in 1943. After the outbreak of civil war in 1975, however, this influence declined due to the reluctance of senior clergy to openly sanction the political objectives of Christian militias. Patriarch Antonios Boutros Khuraysh (1975-1986) was largely sidelined in favor of more militant clergy. Father Sharbal Qassis, the head of the Maronite Order of Monks, represented the Church in the Lebanese Front and other Christian political forums. By the mid-1980s, however, the monastic orders had begun withdrawing from politics under pressure from the Vatican.

After Patriarch Khuraysh submitted his resignation to the Pope in November 1985, the Council of Bishops came under pressure from some Christian quarters to elect a more nationalist-minded prelate, but ultimately decided (with prodding from the Vatican) to choose a patriarch expected to steer clear of politics. On April 19, 1986, Sfeir became the 76th patriarch of the Maronite Church.

Sfeir was born in the village of Rayfoun, Keseouan on May 15, 1920. He obtained his primary education at Mar Abda School in Harharaya and his secondary education at St. Maron Seminary in Ghazir, then studied philosophy and theology at St. Joseph University in Beirut. After being ordained a priest in May 1950, he served for four years in his home parish of Rayfoun. After serving in several other positions within the church, he was ordained a bishop in 1961. Over the next 25 years, he served as Patriarchal Vicar and Secretary to the Maronite Patriarchate and became known for his moderate political views.

Like his predecessor, Sfeir largely stayed out of politics during the first few years of his tenure as patriarch, generally deferring to the stance of the Lebanese president. This would change abruptly in 1989.

A Divided Flock

In the fall of 1988, Syria and the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militia brought about a political crisis by preventing parliament members in areas under their respective control to convene and elect a new president. Damascus, which staunchly opposed the election of any candidate unwilling to sign a treaty recognizing Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, wagered that the demise of the Lebanese Republic would create a political vacuum in which it could dominate the entire country. Fifteen minutes before the expiration of his term, outgoing President Amine Gemayel appointed an interim government, headed by Army Commander Michel Aoun as prime minister, to run the country until a new president could be elected. The Syrians backed the formation of a rival regime, supported by their client militias, in West Beirut.

In the spring of 1989, Aoun launched an ambitious drive to restore government authority in militia-controlled areas, resulting in Syrian shelling of east Beirut and the outbreak of open war between Lebanese army units and Syrian forces.

Although Aoun's attempt to restore government authority was widely hailed outside the Christian enclave, most traditional Christian political elites opposed Aoun's initiative and the patriarch joined them in calling for an end to the hostilities as the violence intensified. After 23 Christian deputies met at the seat of the Maronite Church in Bkirki, under the auspices of Sfeir, and called for a cease-fire, thousands of Christians demonstrated against the initiative - perhaps the first time that opposition to the views of a Maronite patriarch had been openly expressed by so many. It would not be the last.

Michel Aoun
After the Arab League brokered a cease-fire in September 1989, a Saudi and American-sponsored meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians was organized in Taif, Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to approve an agreement that would provide for the unification of Lebanon and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country. The final agreement did not, however, call for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (Syrian officials objected to such wording, claiming that it would give Aoun a moral victory). In fact, it stated that "the Syrian government and the Lebanese national accord government shall decide on the redeployment of the Syrian forces" in the future - in effect, giving Damascus the right to decide if and when it withdrew from the country. After heavy doses of intimidation by Syrian intelligence[7] and verbal promises by American officials to secure a Syrian pullout after Aoun's departure, the delegates signed the so-called "Taif Accord."

Not surprisingly, Aoun rejected the agreement, a stance supported by the vast majority of Lebanese Christians (as well as many, if not most, Lebanese Muslims). Although many Maronite clergymen opposed the Taif Accord (and many who didn't nevertheless felt that the Church should not formally endorse it), Sfeir was under considerable pressure from the Vatican to openly support the agreement.

In conjunction with its drive to improve relations with the Muslim world, the Vatican decided in the late 1980s to "put aside the question of the Syrian presence in Lebanon,"[8] notes one expert, and pressured the Maronite Church to do the same. After returning from a one-month stay in Rome, however, Sfeir declared his support for the Taif Accord, stating that it would be "a fatal error to believe that we can live alone on an island in which we run our affairs as we like."[9] A few days later, he declared that Aoun's stance was illegal and unconstitutional. On November 5, as parliamentary deputies met at an abandoned air base in Syrian-occupied north Lebanon to "elect" a new president, Sfeir warned in a sermon that Aoun's stand "would lead to partitioning of the country."[10]

The vast majority of Lebanese in the free enclave felt quite differently - virtually all businesses closed in observance of a general strike on November 5 and thousands of protestors took to the streets of east Beirut. Outrage at the patriarch's stance on Syria was rampant. Around 100 angry Christian youths stormed Sfeir's residence in Bkirki and physically assaulted the patriarch, while rioters burned tires outside of six other churches. Although Aoun quickly condemned the rioters, Sfeir complained bitterly that Lebanese soldiers stationed outside the patriarchate in Bkirki had not protected him. The patriarch reluctantly moved from the Christian enclave to Syrian-occupied north Lebanon.

The patriarch's authority was challenged even within the Church itself, as several monastic orders issued proclamations supporting Aoun and denouncing the Taif Accord. In order to bolster the patriarch's authority, the Vatican got directly involved in reorganizing the Maronite Church. Speaking before a gathering of Lebanese bishops in November 1989, the papal nuncio in Lebanon, Pablo Puente, condemned "the interference of clerical persons and institutions in politics without being officially mandated to by the church hierarchy . . . an end must be put to political visits and declarations that have no clear Church mandate."[11] The Vatican later sought to eradicate nationalist views in the clergy by appointing "visiting bishops" to supervise three particularly troublesome monastic orders.

When a new round of fighting broke out between pro-Aoun army units and LF militia forces in the spring of 1990, Sfeir urged the Syrian-backed regime in West Beirut to seize control of the Christian enclave. "The legitimate government should spread its authority over the whole nation," he said in one interview. "It should not wait for an invitation from anyone to do so."[12] Unfortunately for Sfeir, even predominantly Muslim army units stationed in Syrian-controlled areas were unwilling to take up arms against Aoun's government. In October 1990, the Syrians finally went in themselves and crushed Aoun's forces, bringing Lebanon under the control of a single government for the first time in two years.

The Second Republic

Three weeks after Syrian troops completed their conquest of Lebanon, the Council of Bishops issued a statement declaring that "the reunification of the army which the state is attempting to achieve is not being performed in a way likely to preserve the institution's unity," adding that "some officers and soldiers have been executed" and some civilians have "disappeared." Aside from its obvious understatement (dozens of soldiers were executed and dozens of people, including two Maronite priests, were abducted by the Syrians), the bishop's statement was also notable in that it did not mention Syria once.[13] This style of discourse, in which human rights abuses are raised cautiously but explicit mention of the Syrian occupation is avoided, would characterize Bkirki's policies for the next ten years.

Although some priests were jostled by their parishioners in the weeks after Syria's takeover, public hostility resulting from the church's stance on Syria gradually subsided. Having resisted Syrian hegemony tooth and nail until the bitter end, the Maronite street became subdued and disillusioned after 1990. The exile (Aoun, Gemayel) or imprisonment (LF leader Samir Geagea) of prominent Christian political figures after the Syrian takeover created a leadership vacuum that only the Maronite church could fill.

From the perspective of Bkirki, the Lebanese Christian community - and Maronites in particular - suffered from three main afflictions after the war.

Political Exclusion

The Maronite community was almost completely disenfranchised under the Syrian occupation. Although the Taif Accord stipulated a power-sharing arrangement that gave Maronites the presidency and a large (relative to their demographic weight) share of parliamentary seats, both were monopolized by a narrow stratum of pro-Syrian politicians with little or no support within the Maronite community.


According to Fouad Turk, a former director-general of the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, around 850,000 Christians (a majority of whom were Maronite) left Lebanon during the war, only 60,000 of whom moved back to Syrian-occupied Lebanon in the 1990s. In fact, Christian emigration continued after the war.[14] Meanwhile, over 200,000 Arab immigrants (mostly Syrian and Palestinian, and mostly Muslim) were granted Lebanese citizenship in 1994.


An even greater concern for Bkirki was the problem of Christians displaced during the fighting. Of the 847,000 people driven from their homes during the war, 680,000 were Christian (the vast majority of whom were Maronites).[15] While the government publicly claimed that the return of the displaced to their homes was a top priority, most funds allocated to the Department of the Displaced were embezzled by post-war political elites. Although $500 million was ostensibly spent repairing and rebuilding villages in the Shouf, only 15-20% of residents expelled from the region in the early 1980s had returned by 1998.[16] Because of the Christian community's exclusion from the political order, the allocation of funds disproportionately favored Muslims.[17]

In 1992, the Maronite Church endorsed an opposition boycott of parliamentary elections, arguing that a fair vote could not take place so long as Syrian troops remained stationed in the Greater Beirut area. As a result, only 13% of the electorate participated. Typically, Syria's allies in Lebanon complained that the Church was obstructing national reconciliation, but Sfeir made no apologies for the decision. "If we are forced to choose between freedom and coexistence, we will choose freedom," the patriarch declared in December 1992.[18]

However, Sfeir's decision to support the 1992 boycott was not well received by the Holy See. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Christian grievances, Vatican officials argued that boycotting the elections and ostracizing the state only served to weaken the position of Christians in Lebanon. Although Sfeir came to accept this logic, the vast majority of Lebanese Christians did not. Moreover, some Maronite Bishops resented the Vatican's tacit acceptance of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and went so far as to call on Bkirki to distance itself from Rome and embrace its Eastern Christian roots. The Vatican would help him show them the light.

The Synod for Lebanon

In June 1991, Pope John Paul II met with Sfeir and three other Arab Catholic Patriarchs (Melkite or Greek Catholic; Armenian Catholic, and Syrian Catholic) and announced his intention to convene a special Synod for Lebanon - a personal initiative by the Pope to "help" Lebanon correct the mistakes of the war and promote interconfessional coexistence. The Lebanese churches, he said, must undertake "conscience-screening" and self-questioning.

One of the first steps in the synodal process was the distribution of a survey to all parishes in Lebanon to gauge grassroots views of the Church. The results showed that Lebanese Christians overwhelmingly resented the Church's endorsement of the Taif Accord; abhorred frequent violations of poverty and chastity vows by Lebanese clergy, and felt that the Church had not sufficiently cared for the poor and disadvantaged.

The Vatican made Sfeir a cardinal in 1994, bolstering his stature (only twice before had a Maronite patriarch been so honored), and sought to arrange a papal visit to Lebanon. However, fearing that Lebanese Christians would exploit the visit to embarrass Damascus, Assad dispatched envoys to the Vatican to persuade the Pope to postpone the visit until after Lebanon's 1995 presidential election (later canceled under Syrian pressure by parliament, which extended Hrawi's term by three years) and 1996 parliamentary elections. Although Syrian obstruction of the Pope's visit may have influenced Bkirki's decision to oppose a boycott of the 1996 elections, it also fueled resentment which became manifest during the Synod's final convocation in late 1995. The final statement of the Synod condemned political imprisonment, torture, and other abuses by the state; called for "liberating" south Lebanon "of Israeli occupation," and urged the "departure from Lebanon of Syrian forces."[19] The fact that the statement urged action against Israel, while expressing only a desire for an end to the Syrian presence, was evidently a compromise between non-Maronite and Maronite participants, who would not countenance ignoring the latter altogether.

Not surprisingly, the Syrians were outraged by the statement and instructed their allies in Lebanon to formally protest it in meetings with Vatican officials. However, Sfeir's stance on the 1996 elections persuaded the Syrians to open a dialogue with Bkirki, conducted through Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elie Ferzli (a Greek Orthodox) and other intermediaries. In early 1997, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, met with Bishop Beshara Rahi, the head of the Byblos diocese.

Because the Christian-Syrian dialogue did not produce any tangible changes, many suspected that it was intended mainly to divide the Christian opposition. "The Syrian-Christian dialogue thus appears to be in part a carrot to prevent the Christians from unifying," concluded one study published by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.[20] Sfeir's dialogue with Damascus was also resented by Syria's allies in the government. President Elias Hrawi, who felt that his office entitled him to be the Christian's primary interlocutor, openly expressed his displeasure at being excluded from the dialogue, as did Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Both complained to the Vatican, which summoned Ferzli to explain the nature of his mediation.

The patriarch absolutely refused to make the concession that the Syrians most wanted - an official visit by Sfeir to Damascus. "Some Lebanese with close ties to the Syrian regime try to prompt me to go to Damascus," he said in 1997. "But I will not go there before the relations between our two countries are clarified and before Lebanon regains its sovereignty and independence."[21]

After the 1996 elections, the Syrians were more disposed to allow a papal visit. Prior to the Pope's arrival in Lebanon in May 1997, Vatican Foreign Minister Jean-Louis Tauran visited Damascus to negotiate the terms. According to numerous sources, Assad agreed to allow the visit on the condition that the Pope not mention Syria's occupation of Lebanon or question the legitimacy of its puppet government in Beirut.[22] In addition, Syria finally appointed an ambassador to the Vatican (its relations with the Holy See had previously been managed by its ambassador to Italy).

The Vatican was more than accommodating. A few days prior to the Pope's May 10-11 visit, the Vatican's daily newspaper published an article by Tauran praising Lebanon as "the only Arab country where all citizens are considered equal partners in running the country" and a "democracy where members of the various Christian and Moslem communities have the same rights and duties."[23] When the pontiff was asked during his flight to Beirut if his visit might lend legitimacy to the Syrian occupation, he replied tersely, "I am going to Lebanon, a sovereign Lebanon."[24]

The Apostolic Exhortation

The Pope's visit to Lebanon, which drew crowds of up to half a million people (closely monitored by 3,000 plainclothes Syrian intelligence agents) was carefully stage-managed to bolster Sfeir's stature.[25] The patriarch stood by the pontiff's side at all times during the visit - a conspicuous departure from the usual protocol of Papal visits. "The Pope singled out the Maronite patriarch for special treatment not accorded to any of the other political or spiritual leaders he met," noted on Lebanese commentator. "He made a point of mentioning him in all his sermons and sitting alongside him in his popemobile, as though to urge Christians to adopt him as their leader on both the spiritual and political levels."[26] According to most observers, the Pope's visit succeeded in strengthening Sfeir's authority. "Bkirki has proven that it is, on its own, stronger than the extremist opposition," wrote one political analyst in the pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir.[27]

The highlight of the Pope's visit was his Apostolic Exhortation, entitled "A New Hope for Lebanon." The Apostolic Exhortation was supposedly intended to "unify and guide" the Lebanese Catholic churches. In effect, however, it was a retort to the Maronite bishop's closing statement at the 1995 synod. The overriding theme of the Pope's message was that Lebanese Christians must assimilate culturally and politically. "I want to highlight the necessity, for the Christians of Lebanon, to maintain and strengthen their ties of solidarity to the Arab world," the Pope proclaimed.[28] When a group of youths chanted words of welcome to him in English, the Pope chastised them, saying they should chant in Arabic.

In practice the Vatican's talk of solidarity with the Arab world meant that the Maronites should accommodate Syrian interests in Lebanon - a directive that did not sit well with some clergymen. "Christians of Lebanon totally agree with the Vatican on the necessity to adapt and be in harmony with their Arab and Muslim environment," said Bishop Rahi a few days prior to the Pope's arrival. "But they do not agree on the content and methods to use to achieve this goal." [29]

Although the Pope called for a sovereign Lebanon free of foreign forces during his visit, he made no explicit mention of the Syrian presence. He did, however explicitly refer to "the menacing occupation of South Lebanon."[30] By specifically highlighting the limited Israeli presence and characterizing it as "menacing," while ignoring Syria's occupation of 90% of the country, the Pope was saying, in effect, that the latter is more legitimate than the former - a view that the vast majority of Lebanese Christians rejected. Many complained that the Pope's visit should have been purely pastoral - that highlighting one occupation, while ignoring the other, was an inherently political statement that undermined Lebanese sovereignty.

The Pope's unwillingness to criticize, or even mention, the Syrian occupation was met with shock and astonishment by many Lebanese. As the Pope led a May 10 mass, student demonstrators illustrated their disapproval by tying their hands together with papal flags and placing sticking paper over their mouths. One student chosen to directly address the Pope told him, "We ask you, you who have come to bring hope, to say those things which we fear to say and which we have lost the habit of saying." The Pope replied that, while he understood the frustrations of Lebanese Christians, they must work for the future of Lebanon. "The message was simple," wrote British journalist Robert Fisk. "The Christians should stop complaining."[31]

If Sfeir was expecting that the Pope's visit would produce a breakthrough in his negotiations with the Syrians, he was sorely mistaken. The patriarch's newly-enhanced stature concerned Syria's Christian allies in Lebanon, who had little grassroots support of their own and feared that an understanding between the patriarch and Damascus would come at their expense. Shortly after the Pope's visit to Lebanon, the negotiations came to a halt. "Dialogue can only take place between states and we deal only with the Lebanese state," Syrian Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam announced in June.

Sfeir's political quietism continued for the next three years. The election of Gen. Emile Lahoud as president in 1998 was initially welcomed by the Church, which opposed a second extension of Hrawi's term. However, Lahoud - who lacked an indigenous base of political support - proved to be more subservient to Syria than his predecessor. Although the new president cracked down on some of the corruption that had prevailed during the reconstruction boom years, he presided over a strengthening of Lebanon's security apparatus vis-a-vis civilian political institutions that alienated broad sectors of the population.

Confronting Syria

During the course of 2000, Sfeir and the Maronite religious establishment began a steady progression toward unprecedented criticism of the Lebanese regime and, by the end of the year, of the Syrian occupation itself. As a result of deteriorating economic conditions, public antipathy toward the Syrian occupation had reached unprecedented heights by the end of 1999. An explosion of popular opposition to the Syrian presence in the spring of 2000 made Sfeir's quietism with respect to Syria untenable politically.

In the spring of 2000, amid signs of a reduction in American appeasement of Damascus and Israeli preparations for a withdrawal from south Lebanon, Aoun's Free National Current (FNC) launched a massive wave of demonstrations on college campuses around the country that lasted for weeks and prompted an ugly crackdown by the security forces. While Sfeir strongly condemned the arrests, he stopped short of calling for Syrian troops to depart,[32] while telling FNC activists holding a candlelight vigil in Bkirki to protest only "within the confines of the law" (which, given that unauthorized demonstrations are illegal in Lebanon, meant not at all).[33]

As the scale and intensity of protests increased during the year, Sfeir's unwillingness to openly condemn the Syrian presence made him seem out of touch with public opinion, particularly after the death of Hafez Assad in June. This reticence had not helped facilitate a breakthrough in Bkirki's negotiations with Damascus. In fact, the Syrians reneged on several promises made to Bkirki, mostly regarding the August-September 2000 parliamentary elections (Sfeir had reportedly been assured that the Syrians would allow a fair electoral law to be promulgated and refrain from intervening in the formation of electoral slates).[34] Days before the elections (which were nearly as fraudulent as the previous two rounds), Sfeir crossed a major threshold - complaining that Lebanon "isn't governed by its own sons, but by the Syrians who impose their hegemony," and calling for an end to "Syrian tutelage over Lebanon."[35]

After the elections, the Maronite Council of Bishops issued a statement that formalized this demand. While recognizing "the historical and geographical links between the two countries and the bonds of kinship, friendship and mutual interests between their two peoples," Bkirki declared that relations between Syria and Lebanon must be based on reciprocal respect for each other's sovereignty and independence. In this spirit, it called for Syria to begin a phased withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon. Although it was mild compared to the FNC's sharp criticism of Syria, the statement sent shock waves through the Lebanese and Syrian political establishments because it emanated from the one institution capable of mobilizing mainstream Christian elites into a united front.

Syria's allies in Lebanon sought to portray the statement as a threat to sectarian stability. President Emile Lahoud accused the bishops of "encouraging sectarian bigotry."[36] The Sunni Union of Ulama in Akkar, an area heavily occupied by Syrian forces, accused the Maronite Church of "instigating fanaticism and strife and blaming others for the country's ills."[37]

Behind the scenes, however, a new round of negotiations between Bkirki and Syria began, mostly through intermediaries. Initially, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri sought to mediate between Syria and Sfeir. However, Syrian officials suddenly disavowed Berri after he publicly stated that Syria had agreed to a limited troop redeployment from the Greater Beirut area. A more direct channel between Bkirki and Damascus was also opened, with former foreign minister Fouad Boutros as a go-between. In January 2001, Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh met with Sfeir, ending a five-year boycott of the patriarch, in an apparent effort position himself as yet another interlocutor between Sfeir and Syria.

In early December, Assad freed 54 Lebanese political prisoners held in Syrian jails. Bkirki's main demand, however, was a limited redeployment of Syrian forces, which would fulfill a promise made by Syria in the Taif Accord and thereby help legitimize Christian participation in the post-Taif political system. Syrian officials said they were agreeable in principle to such a redeployment. However, fearing that it would hand the opposition a public relations victory, Damascus insisted that it would undertake a redeployment only after recurrent protests and demonstrations by Lebanese nationalists had been halted. However, the FNC refused to stop organizing protests.

When the FNC announced plans to organize an Independence Day demonstration near the National Museum on November 22, Sfeir urged Christian groups planning to participate, such as the LF and the National Liberal Party, to pull out at the last minute. As a result, only 5,000 supporters of the FNC and various leftist groups turned out to protest the Syrian occupation. The same pattern of the Maronite religious establishment openly thwarting secular nationalist efforts to mobilize civil disobedience against the occupation would repeat itself time and time again over the next two years. This lack of coordination has ended up weakening both wings of the opposition - the FNC's refusal to stay off the streets undermined Sfeir's negotiating power (by showing the Syrians that the patriarch was powerless to control the "street"), while Sfeir's opposition to the demonstrations reduced turnout and encouraged crackdowns by the security forces.

In February 2001, Sfeir embarked on a 42-day trip to the United States and Canada. Hoping to strengthen his negotiating position vis-a-vis Syria, Sfeir requested meetings with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Both refused, however - a stunning rebuff, given that Sfeir had met with Ronald Reagan during his last visit to the US (and that, during the second leg of his 2001 trip, he was given a private audience with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

The Syrians and their allies in Lebanon rejoiced at the refusal of senior Bush administration officials to meet with the patriarch. Former Lebanese Defense Minister Muhsin Dalloul offered a typical interpretation of this rebuff as an indication that the Bush administration supported Syrian control of Lebanon: "The Americans refuse to let the Syrians withdraw [from Lebanon]. This was made clear by what happened to Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir in the US . . . the Americans understand his point of view, yet wanted to make clear their belief that the Syrians still have a role to play in Lebanon."[38]

Nevertheless, Sfeir conveyed his appeal to many other listeners inside the beltway. In a March 7 speech before a congressional luncheon, he warned of Syrian "hegemony over Lebanon" and declared that his country "lacks sovereignty, independence, and freedom in its decision-making," He told the many members of the US House of Representatives in attendance that "it is in the interest of the United States to help Lebanon."[39]

Sfeir's reception
In the days preceding Sfeir's return, the Maronite Church worked feverishly, in conjunction with Christian and secular groups opposed to the Syrian presence, to organize a massive welcoming reception. As media reports speculated that up to 200,000 people would turn out to greet the patriarch upon his return on March 27, the authorities got the jitters. The National News Agency published a fabricated report saying that Sfeir had appealed to the population not to leave their jobs and universities to greet him. A militantly pro-Syrian (but otherwise obscure) Sunni cleric in Akkar, Rifai Hammoud, warned moderate Christians to curb the patriarch's anti-Syria campaign. "There should be some reply [to Sfeir]," Hammoud told worshippers. "The lack of a reply would lead to disturbing Christians in Akkar."[40] Nevertheless, 60,000 people showed up to greet the patriarch on March 27.

After his return, Sfeir came under pressure from Syrian and Lebanese officials to accompany Pope John Paul II during his visit to Syria in May 2001. On purely religious grounds, his presence would have been expected, since he represents Maronites throughout the Middle East. However, Sfeir feared that traveling to Syria would alienate secular nationalists unless the visit coincided with tangible gains. Another issue was what kind of welcome he would receive in Damascus - Bkirki wanted him to be treated as a political representative of Lebanese Christians, not merely as a religious leader.

The Syrians desperately wanted Sfeir to make the trip. Since Sfeir had declined to join the Pope during an earlier trip to Israel, his absence during the Pope's visit to Syria would be seen as equating Syria with Israel. The Vatican also began quietly urging Sfeir to go. However, after weeks of intense deliberation within the church, Sfeir decided against it.

Qornet Shehwan

In a bid to strengthen his negotiating power vis-a-vis the Syrians, Bkirki launched an initiative to unite mainstream Christian politicians. In April 2001, several dozen Christian public figures formed the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, an opposition coalition named after the Maronite monastery in which it held its first meeting. Although members of Qornet Shehwan privately insisted that its objective was to secure a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the group's charter sought to placate Damascus by endorsing the Taif Accord and calling only for a limited redeployment of Syrian forces in the short term, while expressing support for "the best brotherly ties between the two countries" and declaring Israel the "main source of danger" to Lebanon.

In June 2001, Syria finally undertook a long-awaited redeployment of its troops from Beirut and surrounding areas. While Lebanese officials repeatedly boasted that the redeployment was a result of negotiations between Assad and Lahoud (not Sfeir), independent media outlets portrayed it as a victory for Qornet Shehwan. Muslim politicians began to openly coordinate with the coalition - now seen as a winning horse for the first time.

Sfeir's reception
In August 2001, Sfeir toured the predominantly Druze Shouf region of Mount Lebanon and visited Moukhtara, the ancestral stronghold of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. The tumultuous reception that Sfeir received not only signified a historic reconciliation between Maronites and Druze, who fought a bloody war in 1983-84, but underscored the fact that the banner of Lebanese sovereignty had broad multi-confessional appeal.

Within days of Sfeir's visit to the Shouf, the Lebanese authorities launched a massive crackdown, arresting scores of grassroots opposition activists - a Syrian masterstroke intended to divide the opposition. Acrimony between the patriarch and Aoun quickly resurfaced. At an August 28 news conference in Paris, Aoun accused Sfeir and the Qornet Shehwan Gathering of "marginalizing the Lebanese people and hindering their participation," and complained that the patriarch did nothing to help those who were arrested in the crackdown.[41]

Public outrage forced mainstream Christian political figures affiliated with Qornet Shehwan to make an unpleasant choice - either continue their "soft" opposition to the occupation and lose public support, or gravitate toward Aoun's uncompromising rejection of Syrian hegemony and fragment their alliance with Bkirki (and with mainstream Muslim politicians). Most adopted a position somewhere between these two extremes, with the result being that Qornet Shehwan no longer functioned in full coordination with Sfeir.

This became strikingly evident in the spring of 2002, when the death of MP Albert Moukheiber left a parliamentary seat in the Christian heartland vacant. Anxious to prevent the by-election from becoming a battle between the regime and opposition, Lahoud and Sfeir agreed to back Moukheiber's nephew, Ghassan, as a compromise candidate. Sfeir was expected to persuade Qornet Shehwan to go along with this. However, the majority of the group's members felt honor-bound to confront the regime and decided to back Gabriel Murr, the uncle of Interior Minister Elias Murr and owner of Murr Television, an independent media outlet favored by the opposition. They were joined by the FNC, the LF, and supporters of Amine Gemayel (the first time that these groups had participated in elections for national office).

Humiliated by the rebellion within Qornet Shehwan, Sfeir refused to support Gabriel Murr, who nevertheless won the election, embarrassing the regime by proving that it could be defeated in the Interior Minister's home district and embarrassing the patriarch by demonstrating that his endorsement carried almost no weight among Christian voters (Moukheiber finished a distant third). The pro-Syrian judiciary later overturned the result and handed the seat to Moukheiber, a ruling that even many pro-government legal experts considered to be unconstitutional. Again departing from the prevailing consensus within Qornet Shehwan, Sfeir refused to call on Moukheiber to decline the gift.

In early September, the authorities closed Murr Television. While the move sparked expressions of outrage across the political spectrum in Lebanon, Sfeir's reaction was again muted - he referred to the incident as a "family feud," rather than an assault on press freedom. Qornet Shehwan, on the other hand, decided to formally suspend its dialogue with President Lahoud at a meeting in which Sfeir's representative, Bishop Youssef Beshara, was conspicuously absent.

Damascus cleverly exploited these divisions. As the Lebanese authorities opened judicial investigations against Qornet Shehwan members, such as Gemayel and Dory Chamoun, there was a clear directive from Damascus to its Lebanese allies to refrain from criticism of the patriarch. The intent was unmistakable - to encourage Sfeir to distance himself from the opposition. Deprived of the patriarch's sanction, mainstream Christian opposition figures could more easily be intimidated into submission.

Courting Syria

Ironically, Sfeir's decision to defect from the opposition coalition coincided with an unprecedented drive by American congressional leaders to deliver the help he so eloquently requested during his February 2001 visit to the United States - the Syria Accountability Act, a bill introduced in both houses of congress in the spring of 2002 that would impose sanctions on Damascus if it does not end its occupation of Lebanon.

Like most Lebanese opposed to the Syrian occupation, Sfeir was undoubtedly overjoyed as the bill rapidly gained bipartisan support in the United States. However, while some opposition figures (such as Aoun) saw mounting external pressure on Syria as a vindication of their resistance to Syrian hegemony and cause for redoubling their efforts to mobilize opposition on the domestic front, Sfeir saw external pressure on Syria as an opportunity to cut a deal with Assad. When Syria faces little pressure from the outside, the reasoning goes, it does not need Christian acceptance of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and is less willing to make concessions to Christian interests. The right time to cut a deal is when external pressure is mounting and the Syrians are desperate to avoid embarrassing displays of opposition to the occupation.

To the astonishment of American congressmen who met with Sfeir just a year earlier, the patriarch publicly denounced the Syria Accountability Act.[42] Indeed, during a September 18 congressional hearing, opponents of the bill pointed to statements by Sfeir has evidence that the Lebanese people do not want the outside world to pressure the Syrians to leave.

In the weeks leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sfeir threw the weight of the Maronite Church behind Syria's diplomatic efforts to isolate Arab states that assisted coalition forces. After Assad called on Arab states to oppose the looming American intervention in Iraq at an Arab summit meeting, the Council of Maronite Bishops issued a statement declaring that his speech "showed wisdom and farsightedness." In a March 19 speech at St. Joseph University, Sfeir called on students to resist the American "war machine moving in the Middle East."[43] By the middle of the month, mediators between Bkirki and Damascus were reportedly discussing plans for Sfeir to preside over a "Mass for Peace" in Damascus, with the Syrian president in attendance (the event was never held).[44]

After the war, as Syria came under renewed pressure from the United States to end its sponsorship of terrorist groups opposed to the peace process, Sfeir continued to stand by Assad. "The Christians in Lebanon will not be a pressure lever on Syria . . . and will not use America's might to weaken Syria," said the patriarch.[45] "We want to remain friends of the Syrians. It is not in our interest to part ways with the Syrians on a grudge," he said on another occasion, explaining why he rejected recent calls from the United States and France for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. "It does not take much courage to see one's adversary in trouble and deliver the coup de grace," said Sfeir earlier this month. "We want to remain friends with the Syrians. We have no interest in separating from them on bad terms."[46]

While Sfeir's supporters claim that he has not changed his position with respect to Syria, the patriarch has stopped calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces altogether. "We are calling for bolstering relations with Syria," he said recently in a typical statement, "while at the same time securing our right to manage our internal affairs on our own, while coordinating with Syria."[47]

The patriarch's concessions to Syria have not gone entirely without reciprocation. In February, Syria undertook its third major redeployment of forces in Lebanon since 2001, mainly in the predominantly Christian areas of north Lebanon, bringing the total number of soldiers stationed in the country to under 20,000. In early May, the Shoura Council - Lebanon's highest legal authority - ordered the Interior Ministry to reexamine the files of nearly 300,000 people granted Lebanese citizenship by a controversial 1994 decree. The Christian opposition has long maintained that the decree illegally naturalized some Palestinians and non-resident Syrians. In mid-May, Maj.-Gen. Ghazi Kanaan (who recently returned to Damascus to head the regime's Political Security Directorate) sent his son, Nidal, to deliver a bouquet of flowers to Sfeir on the occasion of his 83rd birthday.[48]

However, Bkirki's new posture toward Syria had led to widespread expectations that mainstream Christian opposition figures would be brought into the government for the first time. For Sfeir, the new 30-member cabinet unveiled on April 17 was a bitter disappointment. Not only were no Christian opposition figures included, but the 15 Christians in the new cabinet were all staunch Syrian allies. "Those who were ousted in the government change were booted out without a convincing pretext and the newcomers brought in suggest that they were coercively imposed," said the patriarch, obliquely hinting at Syrian control of the selection process.[49]

Sfeir has recently begun to realign with the mainstream Christian opposition. On May 15, he personally attended a meeting of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, which issued a statement calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and accusing the Lebanese government of "wrecking the foundations of democracy, muzzling freedoms, and canceling the independence of the judicial system."[50] Whether this latest political shift is mere posturing or the beginning of Sfeir's return to the ranks of the Christian opposition remains to be seen.


  [1] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 6 March 2003.
  [2] The Maronite Church dates its origins to the early fifth century teachings of a priest in the Uniate Church of Syria by the name of Maron. Maron is said to have fled to the rugged terrain of Mount Lebanon and attracted a growing body of disciples who called themselves Maronites.
  [3] Seely Beggiani, The Patriarchs in Maronite History, Journal of Maronite Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-April 2001.
  [4] Rev. Francis J. Marini, The Role of the Patriarch Outside of the Middle East, Journal of Maronite Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-April 2001.
  [5] Marie-Christine Aulas, "The Socio-ideological Development of the Maronite Community," Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 4, Fall 1985, p.6.
  [6] Entelis (1979), p. 16.
  [7] Sunni Muslim MP Nazim Qadri was assassinated two days before the Taif conference convened after making public statements calling for a Syrian withdrawal. During the Taif negotiations, a Sunni MP from Tripoli, Abdel Majid al-Rafei, told reporters that "the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory is a contravention of the Arab league charter" and that "since 1976, the Syrian regime has not only interfered [in Lebanon], but also massacred and destroyed cities." Within 24 hours, Syrian forces had arrested around 200 of his followers in and around Tripoli. [Lebanon Central News Agency, 9 October 1989]
  [8] Carole H. Dagher, Bring Down the Walls: Lebanon's Postwar Challenge (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), p. 93.
  [9] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 27 October 1989.
  [10] United Press International, 5 November 1989.
  [11] Dagher, p. 93.
  [12] Al-Safir, 13 March 1990.
  [13] Manchester Guardian Weekly, 4 November 1990.
  [14] Dagher, p. 71.
  [15] Ibid., p. 84.
  [16] Ibid., p. 87.
  [17] Although 75% of those displaced from the Shouf were Christian, Muslim families received over 50% of indemnities paid by the government Ibid., p. 88.
  [18] Dagher, p. 62.
  [19] The Associated Press, 14 December 1995. The statement also called on churches to use their wealth, land and other property to meet the social needs of the community.
  [20] The Lebanon Report, Spring 1997.
  [21] Famille Chrétienne, 8 May 1997.
  [22] Al-Wasat, 5 May 1997.
  [23] Osservatore Romano (Vatican City), 8 may 1997.
  [24] Le Figaro, 12 May 1997; Libération, 12 May 1997.
  [25] United Press International, 14 May 1997.
  [26] Karim Pakradouni, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 16 May 1997.
  [27] Al-Safir (Beirut), 12 May 1997.
  [28] Dagher, p. 193.
  [29] L'Orient Le Jour (Beirut), 1 May 1997.
  [30] Al-Safir (Beirut), 12 May 2003.
  [31] The Associated Press, 11 May 1997; The Independent (London), 12 May 1997.
  [32] The Daily Star (Beirut), 26 April 2000.
  [33] The Daily Star, 22 April 2002.
  [34] Al-Mustaqbal, 6 October 2000.
  [35] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 22 August 2000.
  [36] The Daily Star (Beirut), 4 October 2000.
  [37] The Daily Star (Beirut), 4 October 2000.
  [38] Al-Rai Al-Amm (Kuwait), 1 April 2001.
  [39] Speech by Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, Washington, DC 7 March 2001.
  [40] The Daily Star (Beirut), 26 March 2001.
  [41] The Daily Star (Beirut), 30 August 2001.
  [42] In a September 26 interview with the BBC, Sfeir emphasized that he did not support the Syria Accountability Act. "We do not support such a resolution," he said, adding that the Maronite Church does not wish any harm to befall on Syria.
  [43] The Daily Star (Beirut), 20 March 2003.
  [44] The Daily Star (Beirut), 12 March 2003.
  [45] Al-Mustaqbal, 21 May 2003.
  [46] Agence France Presse, 9 May 2003.
  [47] Al-Nahar, 19 May 2003.
  [48] Al-Nahar, 19 May 2003.
  [49] Al-Nahar, 20 April 2003.
  [50] Al-Nahar, 16 May 2003.

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