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Lebanese Maronite patriarch who opposed Syrian army presence dies

Lebanese Maronite patriarch who opposed Syrian army presence dies
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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the former patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite church who presented himself as a champion of Christian rights and pushed for Syrian forces to leave his country, died early on Sunday, state news agency NNA reported.

Born in Reifoun in Lebanon's mountainous Kisrwan district in 1920, Sfeir played a prominent role from the time of the 1975-90 civil war. He resigned as patriarch in 2011.

The Maronite church, which follows an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church, is Lebanon's largest Christian community and the role of president is reserved for one of its members under the country's sectarian power sharing system.

Sfeir was elected its patriarch or spiritual leader in 1986 and was invested as a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994. Having cast himself as a defender of Christian rights during the conflict, he was instrumental after the war in effecting reconciliation between Christians and the Druze sect.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on Sunday described Sfeir as "patriarch of independence, reconciliation, love and peace" in a Tweet.

After the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000 after an 18-year occupation of south Lebanon, Sfeir demanded that Syria also pull out its troops who had been in the country since 1976.

He described Lebanon as neither independent nor sovereign and even after Damascus was forced to withdraw its military in 2005, he supported factions opposed to its continued influence.

President Michel Aoun, a Maronite whose own stance on Syria created tension with Sfeir, praised him in a statement for his "defence of Lebanon's sovereignty and its independence".

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Keith Weir)

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