Maronite Patriarch's approach to IS raises eyebrows

Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai has ignited controversy by proposing dialogue with the Islamic State.

al-monitor Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai visits the Latrun Monastery, near Jerusalem, May 26, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Nir Kafri.

Topics covered

sectarianism, presidential elections, maronites, maronite church, lebanon, lebanese politics, islamic state

Aug 1, 2014

It is very clear that Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai left his mark on Bkerke. He exposed it to a new type of behavior that did not exist under the former patriarch, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, or possibly other patriarchs as well.

Rai is known for his abundant energy that makes him comfortable in all environments, such as at foreign embassies and regional tours. This quality has allowed him to become closer to the pulse of the street than his predecessors were able to get. He was able to “nationalize” Bkerke and reduce the class difference between its parish and the Christian community. The head of the Maronite Church is no longer a prisoner of the restrictive “halo” that used to make the road to reach him long and filled with barriers.

However, Rai's personal qualities are a double-edged sword and have at times incurred a high political cost. Involving himself in controversial issues and sometimes using “shocking” language when expressing his positions, he has distanced the patriarchy from the cloak of “al-Rai” [Arabic word for shepherd] that could cover everyone and made him closer to being the fifth Christian "pole," [in a reference to the four Maronite leaders Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayel and Suleiman Franjieh].

Rai’s recent statements reinforced this impression among certain political circles, especially after he suggested dialogue with the Islamic State (IS). This comes on the heels of his intense criticism of Lebanese deputies for not being able to elect a president yet, as well as his implicit complaints about parliament speaker Nabih Berri for not scheduling daily sessions for the elections.

The patriarch’s positions have only been met with silent resentment so far from residents of Ain al-Tineh, but certain deputies from the Free Patriotic bloc did not hesitate to criticize Rai’s statements.

Bkerke’s point of view is summarized by the Vicar General Patriarchal of Zgharta, Bishop Samir Mazloum, who said, “By addressing IS, Rai wanted to reflect a fundamental principle of the church, which is that it does not believe in violence and murder. The church calls for dialogue, even with a group such as IS, which uses terrorist methods we reject, but at the same time, we do not fear to communicate with them. They either convince us, or we convince them.”

Bkerke realizes that this proposal might not be practical at the current time. This can be heard in Mazloum’s words, which indicate that Rai knows perfectly well that IS is not in a rush to participate in dialogue and is probably not even qualified to do so. However, the patriarch wanted to highlight the major difference between this group’s ideology and the church’s logic, which is based on acknowledging others even if they do not share the same opinions and ideologies.

The most surprising part of Rai’s speech was when he said that humanity is the only common ground with IS. Many found this irrelevant since the bloody and barbaric behavior of this group is far from humane.

Mazloum admits that IS militants do not have an inch of humanity in them, noting that their actions ruined the image of Islam, for which they claim to fight. However, we are all humans, even though they are committing sins, and this is what Rai meant to say, according to Mazloum.

If some believe that Rai’s statements showed weakness toward IS, Mazloum thinks the complete opposite. According to him, the patriarch showed a significant amount of strength when he decided to face weapons with words, which required courage, especially when his opponent’s heart was filled with hatred.

Bkerke appears certain that IS is not “local.” It is a complex group, funded by several countries and intelligence services, aiming to religiously divide the region and relieve Israel, as it would no longer be so alien there.

Based on this approach, Mazloum thinks that the foreign parties supporting IS are the ones ruining the image of Islam in the eyes of the international public. They are creating conflicting sectarian states in the region, and justifying Israel’s establishment of a Palestinian-free Jewish state.

To be more specific, Mazloum accuses the West of putting Israel’s interests before everyone else’s, as well as participating in the Zionist plan that aims to weaken the Arab world. IS came along to serve this plan.

Mazloum pointed to France opening its door to immigration by the Christians of Mosul, implying that the point of all this movement is to empty the region of Christians. He also noted that the Zionists control most of the decisions in the United States and uses that power to fulfill Israel’s interests.

Concerning the campaign that Rai launched against the deputies, especially the ones who are boycotting the election sessions, Mazloum places it in the context of a scream of protest from Rai. This came in response to the retreat from the agreement made between the four Christian leaders under the auspices of Bkerke, to deal with the presidential elections.

Mazloum said that the meetings held before the constitutional deadline for the elections between the four leaders, with the presence of Rai, resulted in the following:

  • the right to candidacy for all four. No veto is to be used on any one of them
  • the importance of a quorum being present for the election session
  • If none of the candidates earns two-thirds of the votes in the first round, and one more than half in the second, the four leaders shall meet again with Rai to discuss other options. They would either agree to support one candidate or choose a different person from outside the divisions.

Mazloum noted that nine sessions have passed and none of the agreement’s clauses have been abided by. This angered the patriarch, who rejects tampering with the presidency and making it susceptible to personal interests.

He emphasized that the patriarch does not only blame the Free Patriotic Movement and its allies for the presidential vacuum by boycotting the sessions. Rai holds the other party, [March 14] partially responsible as well, since it insisted on nominating Samir Geagea, while the situation requires that the party nominate someone else to open the doors of dialogue with the other party [March 8].

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