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.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, announced two days of national mourning for Sfeir on Wednesday and Thursday, with flags to be flown at half mast, and declared Thursday, when the funeral will take place, a holiday.
Sfeir and Hariri were allies a decade ago in supporting the March 14 movement opposing Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Hariri described the late patriarch as having had “toughness, leadership, consistency and courage” at a difficult time for Lebanon, making him “a national symbol”.
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 put him at odds 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