The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Politics surrounds Melkite synod
Church leaders set to elect new patriarch at yearly meeting in Aley
BEIRUT: “I will permit myself to say that, just like others were afraid in the past, we are afraid and worried about our existence today,” the president of the Melkite-Greek Catholic League, Maroun Bou Rjeily, told The Daily Star ahead of the sect’s annual synod Monday.
The yearly synod is a conference attended by all bishops of the sect and Monday’s session will begin discussions on electing a new patriarch. However, rather than being a purely religious matter, this year’s synod has been marred in controversy.
The first day will be the opening of the gathering, and the bishops will elect a new patriarch either that evening, or on the second or third day, depending on signs they say they receive from the Holy Spirit.
Current Patriarch Gregorius III Lahham submitted his resignation after previously vowing to step down once he had reached the age of 85. The synod is held annually by the church, normally in June, at the summer residence of the patriarch. “This has been the tradition for the last 100 years. The patriarch’s seat is in Damascus, Syria, but his summer residence has always been in Lebanon,” Bou Rjeily said.
While the Civil War forced the church to move the patriarch’s summer residence from the Aley town of Ain Trez to Rabweh near Beirut, this year’s session will be held in its former location.
Due to Lebanon’s religious makeup and society, religious figures have long intervened in domestic politics. On the other hand, much talk has swirled around the intervention of politicians in this year’s synodal elections. Several politicians named in these claims denied these rumors but refused to comment when contacted by The Daily Star.
Sources following the elections told The Daily Star that Zahle Bishop Issam Darwiche is seen as being backed by Justice Minister Salim Jreissati to become the next patriarch, while Minister of State for Planning Michel Pharaon reportedly backs Beirut Bishop Salim Bustros. Meanwhile, Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali has reportedly backed a Syrian bishop for the post.
Pharaon and Jreissati, both influential Melkite-Greek Catholics, denied interfering in the upcoming elections. “It is my duty to cooperate and help any patriarch who is elected,” Pharaon told The Daily Star Sunday. Jreissati declined to comment. Former Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, another prominent figure in the sect, was unavailable for comment.
When Bou Rjeily was asked about potential political interference, he played down the rumors, dubbing them “farfetched.”
“Darwiche, a candidate, is a great bishop and he is from the same order [the Salvatorian Order] as Patriarch Lahham,” Bou Rjeily said. He confirmed there had been talk that the Order of Melkite Paulists wanted current Vice Patriarch Bishop Joseph Abs to be appointed.
Abs and Darwiche are both Syrian nationals, but Bou Rjeily said that once a bishop assumes the role of patriarch, he holds the citizenship of all countries he supervises.
There are four orders in the Church: the Aleppian Order, the Chouerite Order, the Salvatorian Order and the Melkite Paulists Order.
“I can assure you, 100 percent, that the new patriarch will not be Lebanese,” Bou Rjeily said, casting doubt on the potential election of Beirut’s Bustros, “because most of the candidates are Syrian, and the patriarch’s seat is in Syria so he should be familiar with that environment, as well as being able to protect the Catholics in Syria.”
As for the Syrian ambassador’s involvement, Bou Rjeily said the new patriarch would face criticism before reaching office if this proved to be accurate.
“But it is possible, because at the end of the day the patriarch is also by law the bishop of Damascus, so we can’t run away from this reality,” he said.
“Of course, they [the Syrians] hope the patriarch is a Syrian national because he will have his own personal attachment to his country and he must defend it and his parishioners, regardless of his political stance,” he added.
Bou Rjeily compared the upcoming elections to political elections. “I will be honest ... each order has its own wish to bring a patriarch from its own order and look to align with other orders in order to have a say in who is elected next,” he said.
The orders that help elect the patriarch will be close to the church leader, Bou Rjeily explained, making him more likely to fulfill promises made. It is possible for a Syrian bishop living outside Lebanon or Syria to become patriarch, Bou Rjeily said. “If they are able to convince Bishop Ibrahim to leave Canada and come, then it is possible that he will be elected.”
Adding to the controversy this year is the fact that last year’s session was blocked. This, some claim, was to give one order – which sources wouldn’t name directly – an edge in the patriarch’s election. “Last year, an order that I will not name prevented the Synod from taking place because they didn’t want elections for bishops,” he said. This, Bou Rjeily explained, was because there were a number of vacant seats from bishops who had passed away in many of the orders, meaning the order with the largest number of serving clergy would have an edge in this year’s election. “They were scared that there would be elections for bishops and the other three orders would have full power in voting again,” he said. “Today ... this order thinks they are the biggest voting group and with the help of a few votes from here and there they think they can elect the new patriarch,” he explained. The president of the Greek-Melkite Catholic League said that then the new patriarch would be allowed to appoint the bishops to the vacant seats rather than an election.
Whoever the new patriarch is, he will be tasked with leading the church through tough times. “The difficulties facing all churches – such as persecution, wars, being forced to flee – need to be made better, but no patriarch is Jesus Christ and he will not be able to perform miracles,” Bou Rjeily said, adding that he would pray for the newcomer’s success and ability to unite the church, which has been divided and marginalized recently.
“I blame the politicians in our government because they do not make decisions to help this sect, despite the fact that we are close friends with all of them,” he said, referring to current lawmakers from Lebanon’s GreekMelkite Catholic sect.
“One of the most important, maybe weak or strong points as Catholics is that we didn’t form a militia during the war. Is this being asked of us?” Bou Rjeily said. The new patriarch would not be responsible for the marginalization of Catholics, he said – rather current politicians would be to blame.