Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who as the vocal patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians pressured Syria to end its 15-year occupation — after initially supporting Syrian intervention to help end his country’s civil war — died on Sunday in Beirut. He was 98.
“The Maronite Church is orphaned and Lebanon is in sadness,” the church, an Eastern Rite Catholic sect, said in a statement announcing his death issued from Bkirki, the seat of the patriarchate, where Cardinal Sfeir presided from 1986 until he retired in 2011. He had been hospitalized two weeks earlier with a chest infection.
Pope Francis took note of the cardinal’s death. “A staunch defender of his country’s sovereignty and independence, he will remain a great figure in Lebanon’s history,” the pope said, as reported by Vatican News.
Cardinal Sfeir was an outspoken critic of what he saw as political and social injustice in the Middle East. On the religious plane, he was instrumental in revising the Maronite Missal to return to a more traditional liturgy.
But he will perhaps be remembered most by his supporters for being what many called the “patriarch of the second independence,” a reference to his role in the departure in 2005 of Syrian troops.
Beginning in 1975, the civil war at various times pitted Lebanon’s many Christian and Muslim religious factions against each other; against the outside governments that intervened in Lebanon during the war, principally Syria and Israel; and against Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon. Vicious infighting within the groups also erupted, including among Lebanese Christians after the dominant Maronite Church allied itself with Israel.
In 1989, the Arab League forged an agreement in Taif, Saudi Arabia, to authorize a temporary Syrian peacekeeping force and to recalibrate the World War I-era power-sharing formula that had given Lebanese Christians a dominant role in running the government. Cardinal Sfeir supported that agreement, arguing at the time 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.”
But many Christians opposed it — not only because the political power of the Christians, like their share of the population, was being diminished, but also because there was no timetable for Syrian withdrawal. Riots ensued until the Syrian forces crushed an insurgency by Gen. Michel Aoun of the Lebanese Army, a Christian.
“Every nation, if it wishes to remain a nation,” he said, needs to have “sovereignty, independence and free decision.”
As patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir refused to visit Syria, even declining to accompany Pope John Paul II there in 2001, and lobbied publicly in the United States and elsewhere for Syrian withdrawal.
Finally, a few months after the assassination in Beirut of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, for which Damascus was widely blamed, the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005 led to the departure of Syrian troops.
In addition to chastising Syria, Cardinal Sfeir occasionally criticized Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist political and military group that the United States has classified as a terrorist organization, as being more loyal to Iran than to Lebanon. Hezbollah has gained power in the Lebanese government in recent years, and is allied with Mr. Aoun, the country’s current president — who, as the constitution requires, is a Maronite.
In Lebanon, Maronites, who recognize the pope’s authority but use an Eastern liturgy, are the most populous and powerful Christian sect. Lebanon has 18 officially recognized religious groups, including various Christian and Muslim sects and the Druse, who split off from Islam about a thousand years ago. In 2001, Cardinal Sfeir also struck a consequential accord with the Druse.
Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir was born on May 15, 1920, in Rayfoun, a village about 17 miles northeast of Beirut, to Maroun Sfeir and Hanah Fahd.
After studying philosophy and theology at the Eastern Seminary of St. Joseph’s University in Beirut, he was ordained in 1950. He then taught literature and Arabic philosophy and translation at the College of Marist Fathers in the coastal town of Jounieh. In 1961 he was consecrated a bishop and became patriarchal vicar.
He was elected patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites by the Council of Bishops in 1986 and named a cardinal by John Paul II in 1994.