The confrontation between the Maronite Patriarch, Bechara al-Rai, and the main players hostile to his positions — notably Hezbollah — has taken a new turn in the wake of the case of the arrest on Monday of the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa, Moussa al-Hage, at the border checkpoint of Ras Naqoura in South Lebanon.
A little more than 48 hours after the incident, the Maronite Church broke its silence with a particularly virulent statement. The text, made public Wednesday evening after a meeting of the restricted permanent council of the Maronite Church, attacked the political and security authorities.
"We demand an end to this security, judicial and political farce," the bishops thundered, calling for the dismissal of the interim government commissioner of the military court, Fadi Akiki, on whose orders Bishop Hage was arrested. From sources close to the case, we learn that Bechara al-Rai intends to return to the charge in his homily on Sunday. A sign of the prelate's determination to go all the way: information relayed yesterday by some local media, which L'Orient-Le Jour was unable to confirm, indicated that the judge had asked for an appointment with Hage. But the latter refused before he had recovered all that had been confiscated from him last Monday, namely his passport and the $500,000 he was carrying.
The Maronite Patriarchate will not be alone in this battle. Parties known for their support for Bkerki and their opposition to Hezbollah, such as the Lebanese Forces, have already joined in the fray. LF leader Samir Geagea was one of the first political leaders to call for the removal of the magistrate Akiki from office, a few hours after the arrest of Hage. The same is true for the Kataeb. Salim Sayegh, MP for Kesrouan and number two of the Kataeb, issued a statement saying, "We call for the immediate dismissal of Judge Fadi Akiki.” Sayegh criticized the activity of the military court, a body targeted by frequent calls for its abolition.
The leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, however, distanced himself from his allies from March 14. He said in a tweet that "whatever the circumstances behind the arrest of the bishop, a calm resolution is preferable to this din."
“On the other hand, we refuse the Israeli exploitation of clergymen to illegally bring in money for political purposes," he added.
The Bkerki-Hezbollah dialogue
President Michel Aoun, who holds the highest Maronite position in the country, has opted not to take a political stance, but has nevertheless contacted Rai. In its statement, Bkerki expressed indignation at the silence of the official authorities. A few hours earlier, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, had denounced on Twitter the arrest of the Archbishop of Haifa. Regarding a potential dismissal of Akiki, MP Alain Aoun (FPM/Baabda), said he was open.
"We have no problem, especially if such a step could help to rectify the situation," Aoun said, when asked by OLJ.
He hastened to specify, however, that this "falls under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Judicial Council.”
The fact remains that such a step has a political dimension, especially since Aoun has been blocking judicial appointments since March 2020.
"We must also see if [Speaker of Parliament Nabih] Berry and others will provide political protection to the judge," said a member of Parliament from the former 14 March contingent.
Those in the circle of the Parliament speaker (who is related by marriage to Akiki) reject these claims outright. The Hage case should be analyzed in the light of the political context in which it occurred. The archbishop was arrested at a time when the Maronite patriarch has been calling relentlessly for more than two years for Lebanon's neutrality in relation to regional conflicts, a notion to which Hezbollah, which is involved in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, is opposed.
The patriarch has also doubled down on his criticisms of Hezbollah, its weapons and its position on the political scene, especially with regard to what he describes as the party’s monopoly on decisions related to war and peace and its attempts to impose its will on the rest of the major political players. The case of Hage thus seems to carry a message from Hezbollah to Bechara Rai. Here again, Bkerki has doubled down: Rai’s positions will not change one iota.
Has the dialogue between Bkerke and the Shiite party, frozen for several months, reached the point of no return? No, according to the patriarchal circles — but on one condition.
"Bkerki is open to any dialogue that would go beyond a purely symbolic exercise," said a person close to the head of the Maronite Church.
For its part, Hezbollah prefers not to press the issue with Rai, washing its hands of the controversy.
"We are not concerned with the problem between the patriarch and the state," said Abu Said al-Khansa, a member of the dialogue committee between Bkerki and Hezbollah, representing Hezbolla.
This perhaps explains the visit yesterday to the patriarchal summer residence in Diman by the head of the Marada party, Sleiman Frangieh — a Hezbollah ally, but also one of the most serious presidential candidates — to meet with Rai. At the end of the meeting, he made vague remarks, blaming a "fifth column" for the archbishop's case, apparently a way for him to clear Hezbollah. Frangieh also asserted that he is not plotting against his allies, but that he "does not take orders from them,” as if to assert that Hezbollah was not aware of his meeting with Rai.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.