Lebanon's Catholic bishops meet to elect new patriarch

Beirut, Lebanon - Lebanon's Maronite Catholic bishops began meeting Wednesday to elect a new Patriarch for Lebanon and the Levant, to replace Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir.

The closed-door meeting of some 40 bishops is to last up to two weeks.

Lebanon's Christians make up about 40 per cent of the country's population of 4 million, with Muslims, both Shiites and Sunnis, and minority Druze accounting for the rest.

Under the Lebanese constitution, the president of the republic must be a Christian Maronite.

Cardinal Sfeir, who was a key player in Lebanon's politics and an outspoken critic of the Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs, was elected as a patriarch in 1986, in the middle of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

The 91-year-old Sfeir asked the Vatican two months ago to be relieved from his duties because of his age, and Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation last month.

Sfeir was the 76th patriarch for the Maronite Christians, the Middle East's largest christian community.