Lebanese bid farewell to ex-cardinal at state funeral

BKIRKI, Lebanon (AP) — Lebanon on Thursday laid to rest the former patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church, a key political figure in the country’s troubled modern history, following a state funeral attended by top political and spiritual leaders and more than a thousand people.

Also attending the funeral of Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir was French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, representing President Emmanuel Macron, and other foreign dignitaries and representatives from Arab countries and the Vatican.

Sfeir, who served as spiritual leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian community through some of the worst days of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, died Sunday at the age of 98.

A mass was held Thursday in Bkirki, north of Beirut, the seat of the Maronite church. Clergymen carried Sfeir’s wooden coffin, made from Lebanese olive and cedar wood. Earlier in the day, visiting Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield visited Bkirki and paid his condolences.

The Lebanese government had declared two days of mourning starting Wednesday, during which flags were being flown at half-staff. Thursday was a day off.

Sfeir was one of the most prominent and high-ranking Christian leaders in the mostly Muslim Middle East. An outspoken critic of Syria, he played a key role in shaping the country’s post-war politics.

He is remembered mostly for spearheading an opposition movement calling for the withdrawal of thousands of Syrian forces from Lebanon in the 1990s, as well as for brokering a historic reconciliation in the Chouf mountains between Lebanon’s Maronites and members of the Druze sect in August 2001.

He then famously visited the Chouf mountains, scene of some of the worst sectarian massacres of the civil war, after brokering the reconciliation.

“He is the patriarch of national reconciliation,” the current patriarch, Bechara Rai, said.

Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East, a third of its 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics being the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.

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