Perhaps I’m alone, but in recent months almost no significant remark from Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai has failed to disappoint me.
Rai’s first priority always was to renew the Maronite Church, and no doubt he deserves more time to carry forward such a thorny project. The patriarch has certainly seemed more lively to his coreligionists than his predecessor, thanks to his energy and ubiquity. But he has also tended to pronounce far too much, especially on Lebanon’s public affairs, betraying a profound yearning to be a political player.
Soon after taking office in March, Rai announced that he intended to travel to Syria. In that way he hoped to signal a clean break with Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. However, he didn’t have to take such a hasty step, one soon made irrelevant by the outbreak of the Syrian intifada, when he had more urgent priorities at home. It looked like the patriarch was currying favor with Damascus, and nothing that Rai has done since then has shown this interpretation to be false.
More disturbing, in May the patriarch made an ill-advised statement on the Taif Accord. After meeting an Aounist parliamentarian, Neematallah Abi Nasr, Rai observed that the Taif “has flaws and needs to be reformed.” He went on to insist that the powers of the president should be expanded. “We are with the equal division of shares between Christians and Muslims, but we do not support it when the president has no power to make a decision,” he declared.
Evidently, it didn’t occur to the patriarch that before Taif can be reformed, the accord needs to be implemented in full, otherwise its amendment will appear selective. And for it to be implemented in full requires ending sectarian quotas in parliament, therefore the 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims. In condemning Taif, all Rai did was articulate Christian, particularly Maronite, resentment toward the current state of confessional affairs in Lebanon. He would be much more useful injecting self-confidence into his flock and finding ways for Christians to reach a mutually advantageous modus vivendi with the Muslim majority, in that way arresting their demographic decline.
This week Rai blundered again, with perfectly reckless comments on the uprising in Syria, offered up in separate contexts. The cycle started when the patriarch, deploying high ecclesiastical ambiguity while on a visit to Paris, wondered in a France 24 interview, “Are we heading in Syria toward a Sunni-Alawite civil war? This, then, is a genocide and not democracy and reform. Are we heading toward a division of Syria into sectarian mini-states?” Rai then warned the French, “What we are asking of the international community and France is not to rush into resolutions that strive to change regimes.”
The essence of the message was relatively clear. Rai fears for Syria’s Christians, who have been well treated under the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad, therefore it is best for everyone to think twice before pushing for the Syrian president’s removal. But what did Rai mean by “genocide”? Genocide by whom? Of whom? If he was warning in absolute terms against the consequence of civil war, then it’s true that such a catastrophe would lead to horrifying bloodshed, which may well resemble a genocide of all Syrians.
However, that interpretation merits two responses. Until now it is principally the Assad regime that has brought together all the ingredients that may plunge Syria into civil war, not the opposition, which by and large has stuck to its strategy of peaceful protest. It is also the regime that, if its authority begins slipping, will consider reverting to a strategy of establishing an Alawite mini-state to guarantee its survival. In other words, maintaining the Assads in power is likely to trigger the very consequences that Rai fears most.
Secondly, when Rai mentions “genocide,” are we sure that deep down he actually means a genocide of all Syrians—Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and what have you? Genocide usually involves a specific ethnic group, and even if the patriarch might defend himself by saying that he’s worried for everyone, the tortuous structure of his phrasing, his resort to a sectarian argument, suggests a more focused anxiety. What appears mainly to alarm Rai—quite understandably, if narrowly—is that war in Syria may lead to a Christian genocide. After all, who do patriarchs ever lose sleep over but their own?
According to a tweet by Antoine Haddad of the Democratic Renewal Movement, in his meeting with Rai, French President Nicolas Sarkozy cautioned that Bashar al-Assad was finished and that Christians had to prepare for such an outcome and work toward the establishment of a civil state. If that exchange indeed took place, it reveals French impatience with the patriarch, and it is also excellent advice.
A Lebanese cleric has no business publicly telling the international community how it must address the Syrian situation. It is even less Rai’s business to implicitly take the side of a despot against his own people—a people that the Assads and their security organs have been slaughtering for months. No need to mention Christian doctrine here and the injunction against killing, because the patriarch apparently operates on an elevated plane of strategic contemplation. And it is not Rai’s business to send a message to those protesting in Syria that Christians and their religious representatives sympathize with the tyrant—let alone to commit all Maronites to such a controversial stance—because if anything will harm the future Christian presence in Syria if the Assads fall, and in Lebanon, it is such a perception.
For the Christians to survive in the Middle East, they must be on the side of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only democracy and genuinely civil orders, to borrow from Sarkozy, can truly protect them—not a sordid game of alliances with other minorities, particularly repressive minorities. Bolstering butchers will spell the end for the Christians, and Bechara Rai should know that by now.