Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, called for a meeting with Iranian-backed political and paramilitary group Hezbollah as he urged neutrality in regional conflicts to save the beleaguered Middle Eastern country from further chaos.
“I assert that there has been no sincere and clear position with regards to neutrality from Hezbollah,” Al-Rahi told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in Beirut. “And I’m waiting and I call on them to a meeting here where we talk about neutrality and all its aspects, because neutrality is in the interest of all Lebanese and first Hezbollah. Because they are Lebanese as well. So neutrality is in the interest of all.”
Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is Shiite Muslim, remains the most powerful political party and militant group in the country. Acting as a proxy group for Iran, it is blamed by many Lebanese and foreign governments for stoking sectarian tensions and bringing violence into Lebanon.
A view of damaged site is seen as search and rescue operations continue after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts.
Cem Ozdel | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The small Mediterranean country of 6 million has been gripped by spiraling crisis and soaring poverty since late 2019 owing to financial meltdown, economic mismanagement and government corruption. Its feuding sectarian leaders have failed to form a government, leaving the country without effective leadership since its last prime minister stepped down after a deadly explosion in August 2020 tore through the capital Beirut, killing hundreds and displacing thousands.
Many Lebanese say that the scale of the current crisis, which has seen the country’s currency lose practically all of its value, is far worse than Lebanon’s bloody civil war of 1975-1990 and that the coronavirus pandemic, which has overwhelmed its health-care system, is the least of their worries.
While opponents of Hezbollah often describe the country as held hostage by the group, they also acknowledge that confronting the heavily armed organization, which also controls Beirut’s port and airport, could result in a return to arms and renewed civil war.
And Hezbollah, whose allegiance is to Tehran rather than the Lebanese constitution, does represent a large part of Lebanon’s Shiite community.
“I haven’t heard yet directly from Hezbollah if he is against or with neutrality,” the patriarch said. “If he says ‘I’m against,’ I ask him are you against the sovereignty of Lebanon, you don’t want Lebanon to be a sovereign state on its territory? If it’s true you don’t want neutrality, you don’t want Lebanon to fulfill its role.”
“Lebanon used to be (the) Switzerland of the Middle East — today it is hell, like the president once said,” Al-Rahi said. “This is not something we can be proud of. That’s why we badly regret.”
The patriarch spoke of a “mutual defense strategy” proposed by previous presidents but that never materialized; something that would have empowered unified foreign policy actions by the Lebanese state rather than sectarian groups.
“Hezbollah shouldn’t remain free in using arms whenever and wherever he wants,” Al-Rahi said….