Western nations back Lebanese Maronite patriarch against Hezbollah

Al-Rai said he was "shocked" by Turkish authorities’ move to convert the historic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.
Monday 13/07/2020
Christian worshippers attend a Sunday mass at Saint George Maronite Church in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)
Christian worshippers attend a Sunday mass at Saint George Maronite Church in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)

BEIRUT – Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai’s position in support of “Lebanon’s neutrality” has been backed by Western countries amid efforts by the Vatican to avoid more internal problems in Lebanon that are exacerbated by regional tensions.

Last Sunday, the patriarch repeated his call for Lebanon to preserve its “neutrality,” stressing the need for Lebanese President Michel Aoun “to break the siege on political legitimacy.”

The statements are clear indications that the Maronite Church has rejected Hezbollah’s attempts to exert control over Lebanese state institutions.

The Maronite’s call for “neutrality” has been taken up by the Christian community’s religious leadership and is not just a singular statement he is likely to backtrack on.

The head of the Maronite Church explained: “I launched the call in the sermon last Sunday to declare Lebanon’s neutrality for the good of Lebanon and the best of all its components.”

“The Lebanese want to end their suffering from power monopoly and neglect. They want a free state that speaks in the name of the people. That being said, they don’t want a state that gives up its sovereignty and free will.”

In a clear message to Hezbollah, al-Rai added: “The Lebanese do not want any popular or representative majority to tamper with the constitution or the law and isolate the country from friendly nations and peoples.  They don’t want Lebanon to go from growth to backwardness and from abundance to need.”

Al-Rai also addressed Turkish authorities’ move to convert the historic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, saying, “We were shocked by the decree of the President of the Republic of Turkey to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul into a mosque, after it was a museum opened by President Ataturk in 1934.”

“It is known that the Hagia Sophia was a church of Christian Orthodoxy from the sixth century until 1452, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city under the rule of Sultan Mehmed II known as Al-Fatih.”

Al-Rai emphasised that “this decision, which was met with international criticism, confirms the value of Lebanon when it comes to coexistence and mutual respect between Christians and Muslims when it comes to religion, culture, beliefs and places of worship.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency quoted from al-Rai’s sermon, but intentionally left out his criticism of Turkey over their plans for the Hagia Sophia.

On domestic affairs, the head of the Maronite Church focused on the Lebanese desire to create “a partnership” that is required “to work together towards saving the country and future generations.”

“People want a free state that speaks in the name of the people and turns to them before making crucial decisions. They do not want a state that abandons its free will and sovereignty, whether nationally or internationally,” he said.

The statements of al-Rai, who wields great influence in the country, are part of a growing rift with the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

“I see in al-Rai’s intervention a shift in policy away from supporting the president and closer to criticising the political situation in the country, at both regional and international levels,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, from the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

The head of the Maronite General Council and former minister Wadih al-Khazen previously called for the adoption of al-Rai’s proposal to reach out to Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, for help in resolving the country’s financial and economic crises.

Khazen considered that “it is unfair to leave the citizens in the open and continue with political rivalry that resulted from all political forces in order to save Lebanon” at a time when the economy and the country’s reputation are at risk.

“This matter requires loyalty to Lebanon above all considerations and openness to Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia,” Khazen said.