Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the 76th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who has died aged 98, was a towering spiritual authority for Christian Arabs. His title as head of the Maronite church symbolised a distinctive religious heritage that began in the 5th century Levant, yet Sfeir’s true legacy lay in the political arena.
For decades he opposed Syrian influence over his country. He was a de facto leader of Lebanon’s opposition in the 1990s and was later considered a sponsor of its Cedar Revolution of 2005. However, many from within his own Maronite community – who make up 21 % of Lebanon’s population – censured him, especially as the gains of this “second independence” movement eroded.
Sfeir was enthroned as head of his Eastern Catholic rite church in 1986. He often visited Maronite communities in Europe, Africa and the Americas, and doggedly drew attention to surviving victims of the 1975-90 civil war: those Lebanese people held in Israeli and Syrian jails; the 17,000 “missing”; and some 800,000 displaced from their homes.
He lamented the shortcomings of the Taif accord of 1989 that had ended Lebanon’s 15-year-long conflict, but at the cost, Sfeir claimed, of imposing Pax Syriana and ignoring the plight of poor people. The pastor constantly demanded that Syria’s troops – in Lebanon since 1976 – leave the country, as they had been meant to do within two years of Taif being signed. For nearly a decade Sfeir’s was a lone voice. That he could speak out at all was perhaps attributable to protective western ties.
The Druze and many Muslims began taking Sfeir’s side after Israeli forces vacated their “southern security zone” in 2000, thus ending a bitterly resented 18-year presence on Lebanese soil. It was another five years, with the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, before a political rebellion forced Syria to withdraw its soldiers.
Later that year, the March 14 Alliance of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties overturned the incumbent pro-Syrian government at the polls. In all these events Sfeir played a pivotal role.
When Sfeir replaced Anthony Khoreish as patriarch in 1986, Beirut was engulfed in a vicious internecine Christian war. Militias largely ignored his attempts to organise a ceasefire. Supporters of the renegade Maronite army general Michel Aoun assaulted Sfeir and drove him out of Beirut in 1989, when the patriarch approved the Taif accord. But Syrian forces crushed Aoun in 1990, and Taif neutered the Christian militias.
Sfeir increasingly filled the vacuum and lambasted the accord he had earlier signed, especially the proviso that the Shia militia Hezbollah could keep and bolster their arsenal.
Naturally, the patriarch’s outspokenness created enemies. Critics disliked his interventions. Palestinians felt he was keen to expel them. He vexed successive Maronite presidents of Lebanon by calling them lackeys of Damascus. Allies questioned why Sfeir publicly embarrassed Syria; enemies accused him of fomenting a Zionist plan based on “sectarian bigotry”.
Sfeir was born in Rayfoun into a family famed for producing clerics. He was educated in Beirut and Harharaya, then went to the St Maron seminary in Ghazir. He studied philosophy and theology in 1950 at St Joseph’s University in Beirut, was ordained that year, and served as a priest in his home town.
In 1956 he became a professor of translation, Arabic literature and philosophy at the Maronite school in Jounieh. He was fluent in Arabic, French, Italian, Latin and English, and in Syriac/Aramaic, the semitic tongue spoken by Jesus and used in Maronite services.
All the while Sfeir climbed the ecclesiastical ladder. In 1961 he was appointed titular bishop of Tarsus, in Turkey, the birthplace of St Paul. From 1961 till 1986, Sfeir was personal vicar to two Maronite patriarchs. As patriarch he assiduously nurtured the ties forged between eastern rite Maronites and the Vatican in the 12th century and with France in the 17th century. Sfeir became a cardinal in 1994, and served on pontifical councils for legislative interpretation. He received Pope John Paul II in Beirut in 1997 for what was described as “the first official papal visit to Lebanon since St Peter”, and on a repeat visit in 2001.
Sfeir built schools and clinics, refurbished Maronite centres in Paris, Rome, Marseille and Jerusalem, and renovated the patriarchal seat at Bkirki and the summer palace in Dimane. In 1999 he inaugurated the first ecumenical congress in 13 centuries for adherents of eastern Catholic rites. “This takes us back to the time when church shepherds met in this part of the world, a centre of Christianity,” he enthused.
Sfeir believed that Christian and Muslim Lebanese people could settle their differences. He engineered a historic rapprochement between once-warring Druze and Maronites in the Chouf mountains in 2001.
After the Cedar Revolution he felt his dreams were being realised. But the return from Parisian exile of his nemesis, Aoun, in May 2005 divided Maronites along pro- and anti-Hezbollah lines. Sfeir warned against the Iranian-backed militia, while some rebel monks openly disputed his authority.
Worse followed, with governmental stasis, economic malaise and a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures. Sfeir blamed Israel for “war crimes” after its war with Hezbollah in 2006, and praised the militia for defending Lebanon’s “living example of coexistence” – before reverting to type in 2009 by telling Christians not to vote for Hezbollah or Aoun’s party. His favoured Saad Hariri government collapsed in 2011 and later that year Sfeir retired.
Sfeir criticised his successor, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, for planning to visit Syria, citing its continued interference in Lebanon. Rahi did travel there in 2013, as rebellion and repression racked that country, while Sfeir increasingly withdrew as his health declined.
He is survived by five sisters.
• Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, religious leader, born 15 May 1920; died 12 May 2019