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Lebanon's ex-Maronite patriarch dies days before turning 99

Lebanon's once influential former Christian Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir died on May 12, 2019 three days before his 99th birthday
Lebanon's once influential former Christian Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir died on May 12, 2019 three days before his 99th birthday AFP/File
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Beirut (AFP)

Lebanon's former Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who wielded considerable political influence during the country's civil war and was an ardent advocate of a Syrian troop withdrawal, died Sunday, the church said.

Sfeir, who was about to turn 99 on May 15, died at 3:00 am (0100 GMT) "after days of intensive medical care," said a statement by the Maronite church.

He became the leader of the church in 1986 until he resigned in 2011 due to his declining health, and held the title "76th Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Levant".

He was a respected power broker during the 1975-1990 civil war, which saw bitter infighting between rival militias including opposing Christian factions.

Sfeir, who spoke fluent Arabic and French, was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

Born in 1920 in Rayfoun, a village in Lebanon's Kesrwan mountains, Sfeir studied theology and philosophy but was never shy to delve into Lebanon's tumultuous politics.

His backing of the 1989 Taif agreement that brought the 15-year civil war to an end bolstered Christian support for the accord, but reduced the powers of the presidency -- a seat reserved for Lebanon's Maronite Christians under the country's confessional power-sharing.

Maronite Christians made up the most powerful single community prior to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, but their influence has since waned as they have been outnumbered by Shiite Muslims in the multi-sectarian country.

Sfeir also spearheaded the opposition to Syria's three decades of military and political domination over Lebanon.

"His biggest struggle was to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which we all thought was impossible because of the divisions in Lebanon," his biographer Antoine Saad told AFP.

"But he worked on it steadily, objectively, meticulously and quietly," he said.

Sfeir refused to visit Syria during his time as patriarch, even when John Paul II made a trip to the country in 2001.

His outspokenness helped swell the anti-Syria movement in 2000.

It eventually lead to the withdrawal of thousands of Syrian troops from the country five years later, following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose murder the opposition blamed on Damascus.

Sfeir's opinion and advice continued to be sought by politicians of all stripes, not only Christians, after he stepped down.

"He was completely against war," Saad said of the cleric who enjoyed hiking in nature until his late years.

"His loss can't be compensated for."

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