Lebanon's Maronite bishops elect Bechara el-Rai patriarch of largest Mideast Catholic church

Beirut, Lebanon - Lebanon's Maronite bishops on Tuesday elected Archbishop Bechara el-Rai as the new patriarch for the Middle East's largest Catholic church.

Results of the closed-door meetings were announced six days after the bishops started prayers and consultations at the church's seat in Bkirki, northeast of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Around 11 a.m. (0900 GMT), the bells at Bkirki tolled in a sign that the vote has ended. Shortly afterward the announcement was made public.

The 71-year-old el-Rai became patriarch after winning more than two-thirds of the votes of the 38 bishops. He is known as a moderate with good relations with all Lebanese factions although he is seen by some as being a supporter of Western-backed factions.

The Maronite Church has up to 5 million followers worldwide. Its head exerts significant influence in Lebanon, where Christians make up about 40 percent of the country's 4 million people.

The outgoing patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, was deeply involved in Lebanon's fractious politics. The 90-year-old Sfeir asked to be relieved of his post because of his age. Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation last month.