Lebanon bids farewell to prominent ex-Maronite patriarch

Bkirki (Lebanon) (AFP) –


Lebanon on Thursday laid to rest its former Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, after a packed religious service for the respected power-broker.

Sfeir, who wielded considerable political influence during the country's civil war and was an ardent advocate of a Syrian troop withdrawal, was buried in the seat of the Maronite church in the northern town of Bkirki.

Hundreds of mourners took part in the funeral, which was attended by clergymen, and local and foreign dignitaries, including French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri led a delegation from the Vatican.

Sfeir was a "free and courageous man" who sought reconciliation and sovereignty for his country, Sandri told mourners.

The former patriarch died on Sunday, two weeks after he was hospitalised with a chest infection.

"Sfeir's death is a loss to the nation," said the incumbent Patriarch Beshara Rai.

"He is the patriarch of national reconciliation," he added.

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

His backing of the 1989 Taif agreement that brought the 15-year civil war to an end bolstered Christian support for the accord.

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

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.

During his tenure, Sfeir also played a key role within Lebanon's fractious political scene, often adopting stances that earned him stiff rebukes from some of the country's rival factions, such as Hezbollah and its Christian allies.

After he stepped down in 2011, Sfeir's opinion and advice continued to be sought by politicians of all stripes, not only Christians, until his death.