Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church has elected Bishop Bechara Rai, a 71-year-old monk, as its new patriarch.
“We carry Lebanon in our prayers, to regain its role in these difficult days that the east is living in,” announced the new patriarch after his election, referring to widespread instability throughout the Middle East.
“We pray for Lebanon especially to get out of its crisis,” he said, expressing hope that the country would soon manage to form a new government.
The former Bishop of Jbeil has become the Maronites' 77th leader, with the official title of “Patriarch of Antioch and All the East of the Maronites.” His successor, Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, retired on Feb. 26 at age 90.
A spokesman for the Maronite synod of bishops, Monsignor Youssef Tawk, announced the news to crowds gathered outside the Maronite Church's headquarters in Bkerke, near Beirut. Since the deliberations began on March 9, the faithful had been eagerly anticipating the election of a new leader for the ancient church.
“Our joy has no limit,” said Monsignor Boulos Nasrallah, a priest of the new patriarch's former diocese, following the election announcement. The monsignor described the Maronites' new leader as “a very qualified person from a spiritual standpoint,” who has long been “one of the pillars of the church.”
“He listens to everyone,” Msgr. Nasrallah said, “and greets everyone the same, whatever their background.”
Although 59 percent of Lebanese are Muslims, Christians also have a strong presence. Maronite Catholics are the country's largest Christian group, representing 21 percent of the total population.
Lebanon's unusual power-sharing system reserves political offices for candidates who hail from the various religious groups, so that the president is always a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shi'ite Muslim. Long-running political tensions forced Saad al-Hariri to resign as Lebanon's prime minister in January 2011, and no new government has yet formed.
Patriarch-elect Rai is known as a political moderate, in contrast with his predecessor's outspoken opposition to the influence of Syria and the militant political Islamic group Hezbollah.
The patriarch-elect entered monastic life as a member of the Mariamite Maronite Order, founded in 1695 during a monastic revival. Lebanese Christianity has favored monasticism from its earliest days, with the Maronites deriving their name from the monk – St. Maron – who established their church.
Maronites are Eastern Catholics of the Syriac tradition, whose church was never formally separated from communion with the Pope. Maronites worship in Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and follow a different liturgical tradition than many of the other Eastern churches which trace their origin to the Byzantine empire.