BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese political leaders and thousands of other people gathered on Thursday for the funeral of the former Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who pushed for Syrian forces to leave Lebanon after its civil war.
Ten black-clad priests with purple scarves bore his wooden coffin, marked with a cross, out of a chapel and along a purple carpet through crowds of mourners as incense wafted around.
They were led by the current Patriarch Boutros al-Rahi, wearing his burgundy mitre and robes and carrying a large cross, and by other priests holding the vestments of Sfeir, who died on Sunday aged 98.
“Everyone agrees he is a national loss and they saw in him the patriarch of a second independence, the patriarch of iron and a grip of stone, patriarch of national reconciliation, the patriarch who will not be repeated,” Rahi said in his eulogy.
Earlier, harmonious religious chanting echoed in the bright sun at the Eastern church’s seat in a pine forest overlooking the Mediterranean on the coast north of Beirut.
Sfeir, born in the mountain village of Reifoun in 1920, was elected the Maronite patriarch in 1986 and was invested as a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994 before retiring as patriarch in 2011.
Having cast himself as a defender of Christian rights during the 1975-90 civil war, he was instrumental afterwards in effecting reconciliation between Christians and the Druze sect.
After the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000 following an 18-year occupation of south Lebanon, Sfeir demanded that Syria also pull out its troops who had been in the country since 1976.
President Michel Aoun, a Maronite, Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, and numerous political party leaders sat among the mourners on Thursday.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also attended, as did many foreign ambassadors and a papal representative.
The Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, a close ally of Syria’s government and an opponent of the United States, was not going to take part in the funeral, Lebanese TV channel MTV reported.
The U.S. State Department described Sfeir on Wednesday as “a courageous leader against tyranny and oppression and a champion for the idea of a sovereign and independent Lebanon”.
Hariri declared Wednesday and Thursday as official days of mourning and May 16 was also made a national holiday this year.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)