BEIRUT — The head of the Maronite Church, Bechara al-Rai castigated on Sunday remarks referring to the fact of "bringing down" the commander in chief of the Lebanese army, General Joseph Aoun, whose mandate at the head of the army expires in January 2024. Aoun's name is circulating among the potential presidential candidates, in a Lebanon plagued by a year long presidential vacancy
Rai's remarks come while clashed in south Lebanon have taken place dialy since October 8, the day after Hamas' attack on Israel.
The fighting in southern Lebanon has left over 60 Lebanese dead so far, and an escalation of the conflict is feared, despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's speech on Friday indicating the party's preference of avoiding escalation at the moment.
The presidential vacancy
“We are entering the second year of the presidential vacancy, and there is no serious discussion on the holding of the deadline,” lamented Rai in his Sunday homily.
Rai said “we must elect a president at any cost and protect the institutions instead of planning the downfall of this or that person, or manipulating the leaders of this or that institution.”
“It is shameful to hear comments that talk about bringing down the commander-in-chief of the army during the most critical period in Lebanon's history (...),” he continued.
“This kind of talk undermines the determination of the military institution which needs more support and encouragement,” Rai said.
To avoid a vacancy at the head of the military institution in the absence of a President of the Republic, the Lebanese Forces presented a bill raising the retirement age of army chief to 61 years. The initiative was vetoed by the Free Patriotic Movement and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. The Kataeb also said they believe that the Chamber does not have the right to legislate during a period of presidential vacancy.
The leader of the Marada movement, Sleiman Frangieh, is also opposed to the extension of Aoun's mandate.
In his first comment on the Hamas-Israel war since its outbreak on October 7, Rai denounced the “destructive war and genocide” in Gaza, saying that “it is time to give the Palestinians their right.” He stressed that "all those he met in Rome expressed their fear that the war would reach Lebanon."
Rai's comments come as hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel continue on the border with south Lebanon, causing deaths and injuries in the ranks of both parties and also among civilians.
On Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that “all options on our front are open and examined,” and threatened to “resort to them at any time.” In this context, Nasrallah indicated that an “escalation on the [Lebanese] front depends on two things: the evolution of the situation in Gaza and the behavior of the Zionist enemy towards Lebanon.”
Consultations with Gebran Bassil
On Sunday, Bassil said he discussed with Rai on Saturday the presidential election and his upcoming tour aimed at finding a unified position in the face of the Hamas-Israel conflict.
“The patriarch encouraged me to continue the consultations,” Bassil posted on X. “We agreed on the fact that the election of a President of the Republic is essential to restructure the ruling class and that it is the key to resolving the crises and stopping the dissolution of the institutions,” he added.
“I assured the Patriarch that we are ready to commit to a pact of honor to support any president elected at the end of an open parliamentary session, if there is no imminent agreement on a unifying candidate and if this would make it possible to put an end to the vacancy and the collapse of the State,” he continued. Bassil assured he had agreed with Rai on “the duty of Parliament to put an end to the presidential vacancy quickly and in accordance with the Constitution.”