Sfeir, Nasrallah (1920–)

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Sfeir, Nasrallah

Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir is the seventy-sixth patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon. He has served as the patriarch since 1986, succeeding Cardinal Anthony Peter Khoraish. Pope John Paul II selected Sfeir to become a cardinal in the Catholic Church in 1994. Sfeir has served in Lebanon during a turbulent time, and he is a controversial figure in light of his high profile and outspoken nature within Lebanese religious and political circles and his influence over everyday life in Lebanon.


Sfeir (also Butrus Sfayr) was born in the popular vacation town of Rayfun, on the slopes of the Kisrawan-Kisrawan Mountains. He was born on 15 May 1920 to Marun Sfeir and Hanni Fahid, the only son of their six children. His birth preceded by only four months the formation of the "Greater State of Lebanon." This state formed under the French Mandate after the First World War to afford the Maronite Catholic minority some form of protection and status. The National Pact was an oral agreement formed in 1943 by Lebanon's first president, Bishara al-Khuri (a Maronite), and Riyad al Solh (a Sunni), Lebanon's first prime minister. They reached this agreement on the balance of power in government between the Muslim and Christian factions. To help ease the Christian fear of Muslim domination, they would divide the majority of high-level posts between both religious groups, including the presidency. A 1932 census determined what groups received certain roles, based on the group's status in the country. The president was to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies would thus be a Shii'a Muslim. A Maronite also would serve as chief of staff of the army. Thus the Maronites were guaranteed not to be overwhelmed by the Muslim masses, as they held two very powerful positions. The Maronites agreed to accept an "Arab face" for Lebanon. In return the Muslim citizenry would give up their hopes for unification with Syria and recognize the legitimacy and importance of an "independent" Lebanese state. This government was the predecessor to the modern Lebanese state, and the agreement was very important in the formation of Lebanon. The agreement would have played a central role in the lives of the Sfeir family, and it had a lasting effect on Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir and his views on the autonomous nature of the future Lebanese state.

Sfeir grew up in a time when independence and autonomy were frequently discussed, likely creating in him a strong feeling of nationalism. He also grew up in a Maronite home, in a Maronite region, creating in him a fierce devotion for the Maronite faith, his country, and for the people around him. Many Maronites had been marginalized because of their minority religious status.


Name: Nasrallah Sfeir

Birth: 1920, Rayfun, Lebanon

Family: Single

Nationality: Lebanese

Education: Maronite Patriarchal Seminary in Ghazir, Kisrawan, Lebanon; BA in philosophy and theology, Oriental Seminary; Institute of Saint Joseph University, 1950


  • 1950s: Ordained a priest and appointed pastor of the Diocese of Damascus; taught Arabic literature and the history of philosophy and Translation; appointed General Secretary of the Maronite Patriarchate
  • 1960s: Ordained bishop and appointed patriarchal vicar
  • 1970s: Patriarchal administrator
  • 1980s: President of the Executive Committee of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarch and Bishops in Lebanon; representative of the President of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon at Caritas-Lebanon; spiritual director to the Knights of Malta; elected patriarch by the Synod of Bishops; installed in the See of Antioch and All the East as the seventy-sixth Maronite patriarch; president of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon
  • 1994: Founding member of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs in the East; became Cardinal and member of the Pontifical Council for legislative interpretation and the Pastoral Health Service

The future patriarch studied, in his early years, at Saint Abda- Harharya School, a Catholic school founded by a past Maronite patriarch. From 1937 until 1939 Sfeir attended the Maronite Patriarchal Seminary in Ghazir, Kisrawan, run by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He continued his studies and religious formation at the Oriental Seminary Institute of Saint Joseph University in Beirut from 1940 to 1943 and again from 1944 to 1950, focusing on theology and philosophy. Along the way, he became well versed in many languages. Patriarch Sfeir is fluent in Arabic, both classical and Lebanese, Aramaic, French, English, Latin, and Syriac. This demonstrates his deep passion for the gospel and learning, deeply important to all Maronite patriarchs He has written several books, addressing liturgical and theological topics.

Sfeir was ordained a priest on 7 May 1950 at the age of twenty-nine. He was appointed to the Rayfun parish, a pastor in the church where he had been raised. At this time, he also began his service as secretary to the Diocese of Damascus. This Syrian diocese leads the approximately four thousand Maronites in Syria. Sfeir gained valuable insight into diocesan affairs and Syrian politics while serving in this role. This almost certainly would have affected his later views on Syria and its occupation and control over Lebanon.

Sfeir also spent ten years teaching at the Marianist College. At the college, located in Jounieh, Lebanon, Sfeir taught Arabic literature, the history of philosophy, and translation. During this time, he was very busy serving as a professor, pastor, and secretary to an important diocese, as well as the secretary to the Maronite patriarch. This coveted spot gained him access to the brilliance of his predecessor, and a view into the inner workings of this position. In 1961 he was ordained as a bishop, as well as being appointed patriarchal vicar. This was a rapid progression to a bishop and vicar in just ten years. Before his election to patriarch, Sfeir held various positions of importance within the church, being groomed for a prominent role and attracting attention.

On 19 April 1986 the Synod of Bishops elected Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir to be the seventy-sixth patriarch of the Maronite Church. This made him the spiritual leader of the influential Maronite Church in Lebanon and millions of Maronites around the world. As head of the Maronite Church, he must provide spiritual and literal leadership to his flock. He was installed as the seventy-sixth Maronite patriarch on 27 April 1986. On that day he took over control of the See of Antioch and the Entire East. From that day forward he has been addressed as His Holiness the Seventy-Sixth Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Levant. Sfeir also has championed liturgical reform, culminating in the issuance of a new Maronite missal, the official document that defines the Divine Liturgy (Mass) for Maronite Catholics. The reform represented a return to the original form of the Maronite Divine Liturgy.

The Maronite patriarch holds a powerful position, requiring close contact with the Roman Rite (the rite of the large majority of Catholics worldwide), other Eastern Rite patriarchs within the Catholic Church, and the pope. The Maronite patriarch has full spiritual authority over all members of the Maronite Rite. The Maronite Church is a part of the Catholic Church and in full communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. He was selected to be a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994—only the third Maronite patriarch to serve in this capacity. Sfeir is well respected and holds considerable influence within the Catholic Church worldwide.


Sfeir was deeply influenced first and foremost by his Maronite Catholic faith. He also was influenced by the Lebanese nationalism that swept the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1943 Lebanon achieved independence from France. Sfeir also became a tireless activist for equality and for the future of Lebanon after fifteen years of bloody civil war (1975–1990) and occupations by both Israel and Syria. Not only has Sfeir campaigned for freedom from what he terms "Syria's hegemony" and its puppet government in Lebanon, he also has called for social changes within Lebanon, within his own church, as well as within the Lebanese society as a whole. Sfeir, ever vocal and controversial, has continually sought what he believes best for Lebanon. Some praise him for this, but he has also been accused of promoting his church's betterment and putting the good of his people before the good of the country.

During the Lebanese Civil War, lasting a devastating fifteen years, the patriarch had the difficult task of balancing the political and religious ambitions that surrounded him. After the intervention of Syria in the fighting that broke out among several factions in 1976, Sfeir welcomed Syria's influence in helping his Phalange/Lebanese forces as they were about to be overwhelmed by the more dominant Muslim factions. The Syrian help was less about helping the Maronite forces and more about being concerned with the government of its neighbor and its consequences. Originally Syria was hailed for stopping the intense and damaging fighting, but that praise turned to anger when the Syrians did not leave Lebanon and started to exert control over the settling nation. The interference of Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization destabilized the country and led to Syrian control of the government.

However, due in large part to machinations behind the scenes and with implications too covert to be directly or easily understood, he changed positions. It appears that the Vatican heavily influenced Sfeir into accepting the 1989 Ta'if Agreement. The Ta'if Agreement was a blow to the powerful political realm of the Maronite community. It delegated Maronite privileges to others, with accountability transferred as well. The governmental structure shifted to allow for an even distribution of Christian and Muslim officials. It was an unpopular choice among his followers, and riots ensued.

Considering Sfeir was so vocal in expressing his views of the Syrian occupation, it seems odd that he would be silent on the Israeli occupation in the 1990s, probably owing to his somewhat strained ties with Israel at that time. The twenty-two-year Israeli "occupation" was a result of Israel's interference in the Muslim/Christian conflict, in which they aided the Maronite militias against their Muslim counterparts. It would seem that the Vatican may have had some influence over this "silence" on that topic as well. In more recent conflicts Sfeir been very critical of Israel.

Patriarch Sfeir reached his breaking point with Syria in 2000 after a noticeable silence on the topic for some time. When Syria reneged on a promise not to compromise on free elections, Sfeir responded, "Lebanon isn't governed by its own sons, but by the Syrians who impose their hegemony"(Gamble 2003). He also strongly suggested that Syria should stop meddling and trying to control all aspects of Lebanese government. This was strong language, more consistent with his past rhetoric.

The patriarch has had an uneven relationship with the United States. He requested an audience with President George W. Bush and senior administration officials to plead for help in ousting the Syrians from Lebanon in 2001. In 2002 the United States, however, decided to introduce the Syria Accountability Act. This would impose sanctions on Syria if it did not retreat from Lebanon. The patriarch used this pressure to gain concessions from Syria in return for his support. Thus Sfeir publicly denounced the Act, hoping to gain more connections and places within the Syrian-controlled government. It was a means to an end, not necessarily intended as a slap in the political face of the United States.

Recently Patriarch Sfeir again reversed his public acceptance and support for Syria. Most likely this is because he had expected Syria to hold true to its word and allow for more Maronite involvement in governing and influence over Lebanese affairs. Sfeir stated after a meeting with some other Christian oppositionists that he would demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops, noting that the Lebanese government "is wrecking the foundations of democracy" and "muzzling freedoms." In 2005 Sfeir's constant demands for the end of Lebanon's occupation by Syrian forces and influence came true. The last remaining 250 Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon on 26 April 2005.

In a show of the influence of the patriarch, the pope mentioned the situation in Lebanon in his Angelus address on 10 December 2006. Pope Benedict XVI stated, "I share the strong concerns expressed by the Patriarch, His Beatitude, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. Together with them, I ask the Lebanese government and the political leaders to have exclusively at heart the good of the Country" (Pope Benedict XVI 2006). This is a public and powerful statement by the pope, but the influence of Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir is clearly evident.


Upon the death of Lebanon's Patriarch Meouchi in 1975, the Archbishop of Saida Anthony Khoraiche (1907–1994), was elected to succeed him. The newly elected Patriarch Khoraiche was confronted with the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War that tore the country apart. A man of the land and of the people, Anthony tried valiantly to restore harmony among all Lebanese. During his tenure the Maronite Seminary of Ghazir was restored, but the war would continue for another fifteen years with interferences by foreign nations including Israel, Syria, and the United States. It was these interferences and the support these countries provided to the warring factions that prolonged the war, increased the bloodshed, and made national reconciliation more difficult.

Due to the political turmoil and security situation in the country, Patriarch Khoraiche resigned his office in 1985 and was succeeded by Nasrallah Sfeir in April 1986. Having been the Vicar for two previous Patriarchs, Patriarch Sfeir was well experienced in the role of Bkerke, in both the ecclesiastical and civil spheres. Bkerke is the seat of the "See of the Maronite Church," located near the bay of Jounieh; Lebanon. Sfeir became a strong voice for reason and sanity in the latter years of the Lebanese conflict.


Global perceptions of Sfeir have generally been positive. Interested observers feel that Sfeir is usually controversial, but assessments of Sfeir have been negative at times—especially when he has addressed Syria's presence and interference in Lebanon's internal affairs. Although he has taken himself largely out of the public spotlight by maintaining a reduced role in Lebanese affairs, he is still a dominant and influential source of inspiration, hope, spiritual guidance, and political leadership. If history is any indicator of the future, Sfeir will continue to be a strong voice in all Lebanese affairs. He has always tried to do what he felt was the right thing for his beloved Lebanon. His first and most binding love is for the Maronite Catholic Church and his God, and he remains passionate about the course he feels is right for Lebanon.


Although Sfeir has made some controversial statements with regard to foreign interference in Lebanese affairs, he certainly will go down in history as the Lebanese patriarch most associated with the intricacies of Lebanese social and political life. Born in a country that has seen many wars, occupations, invasions, and much political turmoil during his lifetime, Sfeir will long be remembered as the Lebanese who has championed Lebanese independence and equality, as well as social and political harmony for his fellow countrymen. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, Sfeir has faced difficulties maintaining unity within his church and proved to be less successful in keeping the Maronites under one banner of leadership. The most recent conflict with Israel in 2006 has caused Sfeir to come out against Israel, saying that they will only make peace with Israel when "all other Arab nations" do so. The current political division in Lebanon has led the patriarch to become more concerned and vocal about foreign interference in his country. Even with the polarization of that tiny but diverse nation, Mar Nasrallah Sfeir continues to voice his opinions on unity in Lebanon. At the present time, he has become the conscience of the country, pointing to the injustices that exist in the social and political spheres, speaking for the poor and disenfranchised. In his writings and sermons, he has presented an agenda of how Lebanon can achieve a future based on freedom, as well as human rights.


BBC News. "Lebanese Christian leader wants Syrians out." BBC News Online, February 25, 2007. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/middle_east/1275156.stm.

"Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir." Answers.com. Available from http://www.answers.com/topic/cardinal-mar-nasralah-boutros-sfeir.

Gambill, Gary. "Dossier: Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir." Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, May 2003. Available from http://www.meib.org/articles/0305_ld.htm#_ftn35.

"Lebanon: The National Pact." Country Studies. Available from http://country-studies.com/lebanon/the-national-pact.html.

Pope Benedict XVI. "Angelus Message for the Second Sunday of Advent." Public comments for general address following the recitation of the Angelus, Vatican City, December 10, 2006. Available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/angelus/2006/documents/hf_benxvi_ang_20061210_en.html.

"The Biography of Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch and All The East." St. Maron Publications, available from http://www.stmaron.org/patriarch_bio.html.

                                         Khodr M. Zaarour


I am concerned that all factions in Lebanon are competing to arm themselves as we have returned twenty years to the past. What we need is to end the anti-government protests and clear the streets of demonstrators and allow the streets to reopen in the hopes of ending divisions in Lebanon.