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Will The Next Pope Speak Arabic? Lebanese Cardinal Is Conclave Darkhorse

Thinking beyond the top "papabili," some have cited Cardinal Bechara al-Rahi, the Patriarch of Antioch. For the Church, the plight of Christians in the Middle East is a key issue of our times.

Video still of Beshara Boutros Al-Rahi in Rome, in 2011
Video still of Beshara Boutros Al-Rahi in Rome, in 2011
Michael Borgstede

More than 15,000 faithful traveled to Bkerké, Lebanon, on March 25, 2011, to celebrate the mass where Bechara al-Rahi, now 73, was installed as Patriarch of the Maronite Church.

His predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, had resigned at the age of 90. Like Pope Benedict two years later, he'd felt his energy dwindling and feared that he was no longer up to meeting the requirements of his position.

That he has already lived side-by-side with his Patriarch predecessor is one small bit of experience that could qualify al-Rahi for the papacy, since the next pope will have Benedict living nearby. More importantly, the Patriarch is considered a seasoned diplomat, and comes from a region that is crucial to the Church. Worldwide, the Maronite community has some five million members of which one million live in Lebanon. A further 500,000 Maronites live in Syria.

Most Maronites, however, have long left the Middle East, with many living in North America. In much of the Arab world, Christians have their backs to the wall and the “Arab Spring” has made the situation even more tenuous.

Al Monitor reports that the community is praying for one of their own to become pope as a sign of the times. In the same way that Poland's Karol Wojtyla became pontiff just as events were ripe to confront Communism, Maronites hope that the Holy Spirit would help elect a new pope whose divine mission is to care for Christians persercuted in the Middle East.

Back two years ago, in his inaugural sermon, the new Patriarch called for "honest, comprehensive dialogue" with the region’s Muslims. He urgently warned against a split Lebanon, whose greatness lay, he said, in the "diversity of its spiritual families and their rich heritage." Among those in the audience were not only former President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Catholic, but also a number of Sunni leaders, the Shiite Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri, as well as a representative of Shiite militia Hezbollah.

His attempts at reaching out to Hezbollah have earned al-Rahi some criticism. Yet his willingness to be conciliatory is probably his strategy to protect his beleaguered sheep. In an interview shortly after he took up his new position, he noted that Lebanese Christians tended naturally towards a certain secularity, while Muslims today seek an integral role for religion in society.

Trip to Syria

Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, who after his election to Patriarch took the name of the apostle Peter in its Arabic version (Boutros) in accordance with tradition, was born in 1940 in a small mountain village called Himlaya, some 20 kilometers from Beirut. He attended a school run by Jesuits, and was ordained into the priesthood at the age of 26.

As head of Arab broadcasts on Vatican radio, he lived in Rome for several years. Along with Arabic, he speaks French, English, Spanish and Italian. In 1990 he became bishop of the diocese of of Jbeil. On November 24, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal.

He is considered close with Milan's Cardinal Angelo Scola, an influential figure and himself a top contender to be next pope.

Pope Benedict had also asked him to prepare the texts for the bishop of Rome’s traditional Way of the Cross on Good Friday later this month. The decision was the Pope’s way of commemorating his visit to Lebanon last year, a statement from the Vatican said, and an invitation to all Christians to pray for their fellow believers in the Middle East.

As a cardinal, al-Rahi has not avoided controversy. In early February he went to Syria – the first visit by a Maronite Patriarch to the country since Lebanese independence in 1943. Officially, the cardinal traveled to Damascus for the enthronement of Greek-Orthodox Patriarch John X. On that occasion, al-Rahi’s prayer for peace would have probably provoked less controversy if he hadn’t, in 2011, he called for Assad to be "given a chance."

It wasn’t only the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance that interpreted this visit as indirect support for President al-Assad’s beleaguered regime – Saudi Arabian newspaper al-Watan ran a caricature that played up the similarities in Arabic of the names Bechara Boutros al-Rahi and Bashar al-Assad, and portrayed the cardinal’s mitre as a rocket.

The cardinal wasn’t ready to take this from a country where even owning a Bible is punishable and any type of Christian proselytizing means a death sentence. He had his lawyer file a lawsuit. Shortly afterwards he got an apology from the Saudi Arabian ambassador, and the newspaper was sanctioned.

Both his familiarity with and a willingness to confront those in the Muslim world may make al-Rahi an interesting alternative for cardinals concerned about the challenges that Christianity faces outside the confines of the Church itself.

*Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that al-Rahi wrote the Way of the Cross meditations last year. He has been asked to write it this year's ceremony.

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