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Saudi king hosts Lebanese patriarch in historic visit overshadowed by Hariri resignation

Bechara el-Rai's visit to Saudi Arabia is the first ever by a Maronite patriarch.[Getty]

Date of publication: 14 November, 2017

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Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Tuesday hosted the head of the Lebanese Maronite church in a historic visit overshadowed by an unfolding diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman hosted the head of the Lebanese Maronite church in a historic visit  on Tuesday overshadowed by an unfolding diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Bechara el-Rai had planned his two-day visit before Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his shock resignation on November 4 in a pre-recorded statement broadcast from Riyadh, which plunged Lebanon into crisis and led to speculation that he was being held against his will.

The Maronite cardinal arrived on Monday in the first trip to the kingdom by a senior Lebanese figure since Hariri's dramatic resignation.

His visit to Saudi Arabia is the first ever by a Maronite patriarch.

Before departing to Saudi Arabia Rai said the return of Hariri from Saudi Arabia was essential for Lebanon's stability.

The patriarch and the king "reviewed fraternal relations between the kingdom and Lebanon and confirmed the importance of the role of different religions and cultures in promoting tolerance, renouncing violence, extremism and terrorism," the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.

Rai also met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a trip that symbolises a rare inter-religious exchange in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which is home to the holiest sites in Islam.

The Maronite patriarch's visit "stresses the kingdom's approach for peaceful coexistence, closeness and openness for all sections of Arabic people," Saudi Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan said on Twitter.

Rai also held talks with Hariri, who during his resignation speech accused Hizballah, the powerful Shia movement that is part of his government but also close to Iran, of controlling Lebanon.

Senior Lebanese politicians allege Hariri is under de facto house arrest in Riyadh, though he vowed in an interview on Sunday to return to Lebanon in "two or three days".

In Lebanon, there is a widespread belief he is being held captive in Riyadh, where a broad consolidation of power and a purge led by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against dissidents and rival princes is taking place.

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