Michael Young/Maronite Patriarch Al Raei/Home work

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Maronite Patriarch Al Raei/Home work
By: Michael Young/Now Lebanon
Now Lebanon 31 August/14

For Maronites, salvation begins in Lebanon The patriarchs and bishops of the Eastern churches met on Wednesday in the presence of several foreign ambassadors to sound the alarm on the Christian presence in the Middle East. In reference to the offensive by the Islamic State, the clerics condemned “the silence in the face of what is happening, in the absence of a unified regional plan on the part of [those with] influence in the world –notably Islamic, spiritual and political authorities – as well as the lukewarm international attitude toward these events.” Their anxiety is understandable. Christians face an existential threat.

Even in the best of scenarios it’s difficult to imagine that the communities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will go back to where they were demographically even a decade ago. But one community stands out in the desolate field of dwindling Arab Christian minorities: the Maronites. Of all the region’s Christians, they alone have a senior post reserved for them, namely the presidency of Lebanon. Better still, they have a patriarch whose vanity and pomposity have frequently pushed him to speak in the name of all Eastern Christians. But before picking up the sword on behalf of his Arab brethren, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai should clean nearer to his front door. There is perhaps little he can do to prevent the jihadist threat in the region, but the Maronites are facing a host of lesser challenges, some of which Rai can help resolve in such a way as to create a climate benefiting the whole community. To get a sense of Rai’s priorities, however, recently many Lebanese learned that the patriarch had asked a leading engineering firm to prepare a preliminary project for the construction of hotels and cable cars in the Qadisha Valley. The valley, which has historical importance for Maronites, is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. There is uncertainty whether the project will go forward. No one is happy with the plan and the church probably wants to avoid an unseemly confrontation over a place regarded internationally as worthy of preservation. But Rai is mulish. Whenever he has made mistakes he has bull-headedly pressed on in his errors.

Yet it is a mistake for Rai to vulgarize the collective Maronite memory. If there is one thing Maronites must preserve today, it’s a focal point for communal identity, and the valley has served such a function. To see it transformed into an ecclesiastical version of Club Med would be an insult. Even those who do not read scripture know the story of Jesus attacking the money changers in the temple, accusing them of turning a house of prayer into a robbers’ den. The Qadisha Valley may not quite be a house of prayer, but in the Maronite psyche it is very nearly so. It is not worth devastating it just so that Rai can take his cut from tourist package tours. A principal thing the patriarch has failed to do is reform his corrupt church. When Rai came to office in 2011, there was hope he would replace the upper echelons of the clergy. Instead, the same decomposing crew is around, though several bishops have long passed retirement age. If these are the men who hold the church’s future in their hands, don’t be surprised that the Maronites are facing a crisis of confidence – or that the younger clergy are as feckless and materialistic as their predecessors. Nor is this solely a religious matter. The Maronite Church is powerful thanks to its network of parishes, schools, social institutions and media. These are instruments allowing it to spread its ideas and agendas. If there is rot at the top, you can be sure that it will soon spread to the bottom. No one can mention Rai without commenting on his passion for politics. The thing is, he is bad at it, which has eroded his standing nationally.

From Rai’s early defense of Bashar Assad’s regime to his recent efforts, all vain, to play midwife to a new Lebanese president, the omni-patriarch has sinned by excess. He has an opinion about everything, travels everywhere, delivers speeches anywhere. Rarely does he mention religion, and when he does it serves as dull filler while his mind races to elections. Would resolving these problems save the Maronites? Probably not. And to give Rai credit, he has rightly grasped that the presidential vacuum is bad for the community as a whole. But the health of the Maronites rests on two foundations: the ability of the community to revitalize and reform itself, and the ability of Maronite elites to adapt to a changing regional environment. The church is vital to the first aim, given its control over many of the institutions that profoundly shape Maronite society, above all its youths. And while the second involves all Christians, the church’s function is essential in a region where religion is central to social and political life. The Maronites’ strategy toward both Sunnis and Shiites, for example, cannot possibly be formulated without church backing. This doesn’t diminish the importance of the call by the Eastern churches. But salvation begins at home. A corrupt and venal church will end up reflecting on the community it represents. Christians who refuse to leave Lebanon do so because they feel they have something for which to fight. But if the church – as the spiritual and symbolic embodiment of the community – is a robbers’ den, don’t expect Christians to fight for very long. **Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling