BEIRUT: Thousands of mourners and dignitaries gathered Thursday for the state funeral of former Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir.
The cardinal’s coffin was borne out of the church in Bkirki by priests shortly before 5 p.m., and was placed on the altar of the outside square of the church, where thousands of chairs had been placed for the funeral service.
President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri took three seats facing the altar.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who represented French President Emmanuel Macron, sat alongside representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Cyprus who arrived in Lebanon Thursday afternoon for the funeral.
Speaking to local TV channel LBCI, Le Drian said that he was offering condolences to Rai and the Lebanese people on behalf of Macron and the French people, describing Sfeir as “a great figure.”
Lawmakers and ministers from all political parties sat side by side under the sun as they participated in the prayer service. Multiple ambassadors, including Saudi Ambassador Walid Bukhari, British Ambassador Chris Rampling and European Union Ambassador Christina Lassen, numbered among the attendees.
Berri and Hariri arrived and took their seats after Sfeir’s coffin was placed on the altar, while Aoun arrived a few minutes before the service started. Former President Michel Sleiman, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh and Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel also attended.
The coffin used in the service and burial was made from simple wood, with only a cross placed on top of it, unlike the one which took him from the Hotel Dieu hospital Wednesday to Bkirki, which was made from Lebanese olive and cedar wood.
Sfeir was born on May 15, 1920, in the Kesrouan town of Rayfoun. He went on to become the Maronite Church’s 76th patriarch in 1986, during the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War. His successor, current Patriarch Beshara Rai, led the prayer service, as mourners held pictures of the late patriarch and wore white hats with his picture.
The altar was surrounded by wreaths and candles colored purple, the color of mourning.
In his sermon, Rai praised Sfeir as a “patriarch of the national reconciliation,” saying he fought without a sword for the unity of the Lebanese people.
Sfeir made a historic visit to Chouf in 2001, where Christians had been displaced during the Civil War following clashes with Druze, known as the War of the Mountain. Sfeir reconciled with Druze leader Walid Joumblatt in a move that enabled many Christians to return to their hometowns in Chouf.
Another of Sfeir’s major contributions was green-lighting Lebanese Christian agreement to the Taif Accord, which ended the Civil War.
Rai said the late patriarch fought to liberate Lebanon from all foreign presence, with his slogan being “Freedom, sovereignty and independence.”
Sfeir was the main driving force behind the withdrawal of Syria’s military and political presence in Lebanon, freeing the country of foreign occupation. This granted him the title “patriarch of the second independence.” Syrian troops had entered Lebanon in 1976 under an Arab League mandate to restore peace in the country, and left in 2005.
Sfeir had asked to be relieved of his duties in 2011, after which he made minimal public appearances.
Rai said Sfeir had experienced the bitterness of suffering moral and physical attack and that he always said, “I will never be the chain link that breaks.”
Near the end of his sermon, Rai said Sfeir’s voice would continue to be heard through all his published work.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, representing Pope Francis, read out a letter from the pontiff saying Sfeir was a free, courageous man. “A man of reconciliation and a defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty,” he said.
A bishop later on read out the same papal letter but translated to Arabic, in which the pope offered his condolences to the Maronite Church, “which [Sfeir] took care of for years.”
“He was a brave, free man, Cardinal Sfeir. He was a fighter for the sovereignty and independence of his country. And he will remain a shining face in the history of Lebanon,” the pope’s letter concluded.
Priests then lifted the coffin of Sfeir and carried it around the altar three times before putting it back facing the mourners.
Following the service, Aoun granted Sfeir the Grand Cordon of the Lebanese Order of Merit, which was placed on a red cushion and carried alongside the coffin.
His miter was also carried along with his vestments as his coffin was borne out of the square by priests in black robes. As the procession left the square, the choir chanted, “Lebanon’s glory was granted to him.” Mourners who gathered on both sides of the procession threw rice at the coffin as it made its way to the cemetery. Sfeir was laid to rest in the Bkirki cemetery alongside other patriarchs.
A statement from Bkirki after the funeral said the reception of condolences will conclude Friday, starting at 10:30 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m.
Messages of support have poured in from abroad. The U.S. State Department and the French Embassy offered condolences Wednesday, praising Sfeir as a leader of peace and expressing empathy with the Lebanese people.