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    Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, influential former patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church, dies at 98

    FILE - In this June 16, 2010 file photo, Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, head of Lebanon's Maronite Church, arrives for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace. Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church says its former patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir has died after days in hospital. He was 98.(AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
    Christophe Ena/Associated Press
    Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, then head of Lebanon's Maronite Church, arrived for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace on June 16, 2010.

    BEIRUT — The former patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church, Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who served as spiritual leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian community through some of the worst days of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, died Sunday. He was 98.

    Cardinal Sfeir, an outspoken and feisty personality who also played a key role in shaping the country’s post-war politics, died in a Beirut hospital two weeks after he was admitted suffering from a chest infection. His health deteriorated sharply as of Wednesday.

    ‘‘The Maronite church is orphaned and Lebanon is in sadness,’’ the church said in a statement.


    Cardinal Bechara Rai, who succeeded Cardinal Sfeir in 2011, called on churches to ring their bells and hold prayers for the late leader, who would have turned 99 on Wednesday.

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    Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East, a third of its 4 million people, with Maronite Catholics being the largest sect. Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.

    Later Sunday, politicians and Muslim and Christian religious figures visited the headquarters of the Maronite church in the village of Bkerke, near Beirut, to pay condolences.

    The Lebanese government declared two days of mourning starting Wednesday during which flags will be flown at half-staff.

    Cardinal Sfeir was one of the most prominent and high-ranking Christian leaders in the mostly Muslim Middle East.


    He is remembered mostly for spearheading an opposition movement calling for the withdrawal of thousands of Syrian forces from Lebanon in the 1990s, as well as for brokering a historic reconciliation in the Chouf mountains between Lebanon’s Maronites and members of the Druze sect in August 2001.

    In early 2011, Cardinal Sfeir resigned from his post, saying he wanted to spend his time in prayer and meditation.