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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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