Lebanonâ€™s powerful Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has been thrust to the forefront of a bitter struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian political camps as a line for a presidential election looms.The 87-year-old cardinal, a staunch defender of Lebanonâ€™s independence, has been pressured to draw up a list of presidential candidates as feuding political parties remain locked ahead of a November 23 line for a vote.
Although Sfeir has resisted being drawn into the crisis, he buckled this week under intense pressure by France to name presidential candidates, despite his desire to avoid repeating a failed experience dating back to the 1975-1990 civil war.
In 1988, Sfeir tried to break a similar presidential lock by naming five candidates, but his list was rejected by Syria which settled the dispute with a military assault on the presidential palace two years later.
â€œThe presidential election has put the Maronite patriarchate before a historic responsibility which extends far beyond the limits of its spiritual authority and throws it into a dangerous political conflict,â€ As-Safir newspaper said on Thursday.
â€œIt shows that the internal political crisis is on the verge of slipping into a dark place which is still fresh in the memory of the Lebanese people,â€ it warned.
Fadia Kiwane, director of the political science institute at Saint Joseph University, said â€œgiving a religious figure the last word shows that the democratic channels are not functioning properlyâ€.
Lebanon has been in political crisis since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and the countryâ€™s parliament, which elects the head of state, has been paralysed for nearly a year.
Fears are running high that if the Western-backed majority and the Hizbollah-led opposition fail to agree on a consensus candidate by the constitutional line, the country would be plunged into further divisive turmoil and emerge with two parallel governments.
Sfeir, a soft-spoken figure with piercing eyes and mind, has been a prominent figure in Lebanese politics over the last two decades, including the crucial second half of the civil war.
He was the leading voice behind the campaign to end Syriaâ€™s military presence in Lebanon, even during the darkest days of Damascusâ€™ harsh 29-year tion of the country which ended with its troop pullout in 2005.
Since he became patriarch of the Maronite church in 1986, Sfeir has refused to visit Syria, insisting that the two neighbours should first establish balanced relations, respecting each otherâ€™s sovereignty and independence.
â€œHe has gained a prominent political role, and was never afraid to challenge anybody, including the Syrians, the Christians, Hizbollah, the government and the opposition,â€ said his biographer Antoine Saad.
â€œIn the shifting alliances of this region, his only focus has been Lebanonâ€™s independence and peaceful cohabitation,â€ he told AFP.
Sfeir has been the spiritual and political mentor of most Maronite Christian leaders in Lebanon, although he has maintained troubled relations with Michel Aoun – today the main Christian figure in the opposition.
Aounâ€™s followers were once accused of an infamous incident when the cardinal was physically assaulted in 1989 when the former army chief and prime minister was entangled in a dispute with forces of rival Christian leader Samir Geagea – a Sfeir protege.