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Lebanon's top bishop slams Hizballah's 'divisive' intervention in Syria Open in fullscreen

Karim Traboulsi

Lebanon's top bishop slams Hizballah's 'divisive' intervention in Syria

Patriarch Rai (L) with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in late February [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 March, 2017

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The head of Lebanon's Maronite Church has criticised Lebanon's powerful Iran-backed paramilitary group Hizballah for its intervention in Syria alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad
The head of Lebanon's Maronite Church has criticised powerful Iran-backed paramilitary group Hizballah for its intervention in Syria alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad, saying it has embarrassed and divided the Lebanese.

Cardinal Beshara Rai, himself a controversial figure criticised in the past for supporting Assad and visiting Israel, told Sky News Arabia in an interview that Hizballah violated Lebanon's official policy of neutrality in Syria.

"The [Lebanese] state had adopted a dissociation policy. Hizballah made the decision [to enter Syria] and divided the people," Rai said in the interview with the UAE-based broadcaster aired over the weekend.

Rai was referring to the so-called Baabda Declaration, signed in 2012 by rival political leaders, calling for keeping Lebanon neutral in regional and international conflicts.

Rai, in a departure from public statements from also Maronite President Michel Aoun, also suggested Hizballah's arms were illegitimate.

Hizballah is "a party with arms, present in the parliament, the cabinet and the administration," Rai said. "I am a citizen and my partner is too, but I am defenceless [and] he is armed," the patriarch added. "If Hizballah wasn't included in the Parliament we would look at the matter in a different way." 

Hizballah has not yet reacted to Rai's bombshell remarks, but pro-Hizballah commentators and outlets have lambasted the Christian priest, questioning his loyalties. In the past, Rai defended Hizballah's weapons.

Pro-Hizballah daily Al-Akhbar dedicated an entire page to Rai on Monday, with writers taking turns attacking the cleric. Some even alluded to alleged collaboration between his church and Israel.

Lebanon is bitterly divided over the conflict in Syria, which has raged since 2011 since the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests that subsequently evolved into an armed rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Hizballah, Russia and Iran.

Hizballah claims it is in Syria to protect Lebanon, including its Christians, from the danger of Sunni jihadists, but critics say its aim is to shore up Assad's government against rebels, including moderate factions.

Some of Hizballah's rivals, especially in the Sunni Muslim community, have supported the rebels, while others have called for neutrality to prevent a spillover of the war.
The Lebanese civil war is a hot button issue, and there is no unified official account of how it started
'Palestinians started the war'

During the same interview, the Maronite patriarch made controversial remarks about Syrian and Palestinian refugees, blaming the 1975-1990 civil war on the Palestinians in Lebanon.

"What will remain from Lebanon? The wars in Syria and Iraq should end and refugees should return to their homeland, it’s their right,” he said.

"The Palestinians caused the war in Lebanon, when they fought the Lebanese army," Rai claimed.

Nearly one million Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon and there are an estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, the survivors of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba and their descendants.

Palestinian officials from Fatah, a key faction that fought in the Lebanese civil war, declined to comment. However, Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was quick to respond.

In a statement, Hamas spokesman in Lebanon Raafat Murra said Rai's remarks carry a tone of "incitement" and do not serve stability in Lebanon.

"There is no need to summon up the past and use accusations of treason. The remarks made by the patriarch do not serve efforts to improve Palestinian-Lebanese relations, which must be calm and cordial," Murra added.

The Lebanese civil war remains a hot button issue, and there is no unified official account of how it started. Most historians agree the spark that ignited the 15-year-long conflict was an attack by Lebanese far-right militias on a bus carrying Palestinian refugees in Ain al-Rummana near Beirut on 13 April 1975.

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