BEIRUT - Lebanon’s Maronite Church elected Beshara al-Rai on Tuesday as its new patriarch and head of the country’s largest Christian community.
Rai, 71, takes office as politicians struggle to form a government after Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri’s administration was toppled by the Shia Muslim Hezbollah movement and its political allies.
Lebanon’s Christians are split politically. Some are allied with the Sunni Muslim camp and others with Shia factions.
Rai was elected by a conclave of bishops after six days of consultations to find a successor to 90-year-old Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who resigned last month to allow a younger bishop to take his place.
Sfeir served as patriarch for 25 years and became a strong critic of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, calling on Damascus to pull troops out in 2000, after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. Syrian forces eventually withdrew in 2005. “We pray for Lebanon especially to get out of its (political) crisis,” Rai said after his election at the Maronite centre of Bkirke, overlooking Lebanon’s port of Jounieh.
“We carry Lebanon in our prayers to regain its role in these difficult days that the east is living in,” he added, referring to turbulence in the Arab world where popular uprisings have overthrown two autocrats, triggered fierce fighting in Libya and challenged entrenched governments across the region.
Maronite churches across Lebanon rang bells at midday to mark Rai’s election.
Maronites follow an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic church and number around 900,000 in Lebanon. A much larger number live outside the country.
Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.