On August 4, as the Lebanese were commemorating the victims of the Beirut blast one year after the explosion and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al Rahi was holding a mass on the occasion in the destroyed port, several rockets fired from South Lebanon fell into Israel, triggering shelling and an airstrike by the Israeli Defence Forces.
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On August 6, Hezbollah retaliated, which raised concerns of escalation. The conflict calmed down in South Lebanon, but it triggered controversy elsewhere.
In his Sunday sermon, on August 8, Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rahi harshly condemned the group’s actions.
“We can’t accept, by virtue of equality before the law, that a party decides on peace and war outside the legitimacy decision and the national decision entrusted to two-thirds of the members of the government in accordance with Article 65, No. 5 of the Constitution,” Rahi stated firmly.
This was not the first time that Rahi had spoken out against the group, albeit implicitly, as he repeatedly stated during the past year that no party or group in Lebanon should hold allegiance to any country or entity besides Lebanon and that no one besides the government should be able to declare peace or war.
The response to Rahi’s statements was this time new and swift.
Supporters of Hezbollah took to social media to attack and, in some instances, threaten the patriarch’s life.
Some labeled Rahi as a zionist. One threatened to hang him.
All of this, however, culminated with the official Twitter account of the Maronite patriarch being suspended due to repeated reporting by Hezbollah supporters.
The attacks on the patriarch reached a point where President Michel Aoun, who has previously been the target of Rahi’s criticism, had to step in and defend him, saying that other views should “remain in the political frame and should not tend to insult or offend, to safeguard national unity and guarantee general stability in the country.”
Over the last year, Rahi has become increasingly outspoken and sought more involvement in Lebanon’s politics.
His political stances are not something new to Bkerki, Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarchy headquarters, as it has long been a tradition for the patriarch to speak out on political and social matters in Lebanon, seeking to push the country towards neutrality in outside conflicts.
Not your average religious leader
Even though the patriarch serves as the religious leader for Maronite Christians in Lebanon, those that have held the title have long viewed it as their duty to use their platform to not only reach out to their community but to also comment on and push for political objectives at a national level.
After the establishment of Lebanon under the French mandate in the 1920s, Patriarch Elias Howeyak presented his vision for a sovereign Lebanon, including in front of the international community, starting a tradition that seems to continue a century later.
“There is a historical tradition when it comes to Bkerki. Bkerki has always played this role throughout Lebanese history,” Michel Hajji Georgiou, a Beirut-based political analyst, told NOW. “Bkerki always pushed towards a sovereign Lebanon. The territorial idea of Lebanon.”
It is not just neutrality that Bkerki is outspoken about.
Rahi has spoken out about the economic and political crises facing Lebanon since mid-2020 and has consistently called upon the country’s politicians to move quickly so that the crises could come to a swift end.
“You cannot confine Bkerki to just being the head of the Maronite church,” Hajji Georgiou stated. Bkerki, he says, politically stands for issues that not only concern the Maronites and has fought political fights at the national level, in secular terms. Neutrality and sovereignty included.
Bkerki’s ability to be involved in Lebanese politics with a sense of legitimacy is due to its unique position as an independent religious institution that is not tied specifically to any political group or party. It has served, on many occasions, as a middle ground for reconciling contending Maronite political factions. For other major sects in Lebanon, such as the Sunni, Shiite and Druze, there is not such a unified and strong institution to take a similar political role upon itself.
Hajji Georgiou explained that the Sunni mufti, for example, is chosen by the state to lead the sect rather than being democratically elected by the people or any religious body. Therefore, he is seen as a political appointee and can’t represent political currents at a national level.
“The mufti has no role in politics at all except maybe to speak in the name of the community when they all ask him to do so,” Hajji Georgiou says.
Sunni clerics do take political stances in their Friday sermons and there have been moments in Lebanese recent history when especially Salafist clerics have mobilized parts of the Sunni community on sectarian lines.
“There is a historical tradition when it comes to Bkerki. Bkerki has always played this role throughout Lebanese history. Bkerki always pushed towards a sovereign Lebanon. The territorial idea of Lebanon.”
Michel Hajji Georgiou, political analyst
At the beginning of the Syrian war a group of political Salafist clerics in Tripoli and Saida rallied communities with their anti-Syrian government and anti-Hezbollah discourse. The movement led to increased violence with pro-Syrian Arab Democratic Party in Tripoli, as well as a series of tit-for-tat bombings targeting both mosques in Tripoli and civilian areas inhabited by Shiites in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
When it comes to the Shiites, the last independent religious leader that they had was Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddine who died in 2001. Otherwise, the leaders have been selected by Hezbollah and have essentially worked as mouthpieces for the group.
While the Druze community has a religious leader, they largely avoid commenting on politics, leaving that to Walid Joumbaltt, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party.
None of the clerics or religious institutions of other Lebanese major sects have supported or advocated for a national project.
The Maronite patriarchy has been outspoken against Syrian occupation, following the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in May 2000, when former Patriarch Boutros Sfeir spearheaded another neutrality and sovereignty political trend.
“It was the first time that anyone post-war would have the bravery to do that and, of course, back then, he was faced with the same number of attacks that Rahi is facing now,” Hajji Georgiou said. “I think back then between 2000 and 2005, everyone thought that Sfeir was a fool because nobody in the international community had any idea about getting Syria out of Lebanon.”
However, in 2005, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Sfeir’s calls were answered and a massive demonstration took place in Beirut, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon.
Bkerki also plays a significant role for the Vatican by acting as a shuttle for its Christian-Muslim dialogue in the region.
The patriarchy has also used its relationship with the Vatican to call attention to issues pertaining to Lebanon. The Patriarch and other Christian leaders traveled to the Vatican in July to hold a day of prayer for Lebanon together with Pope Francis, the only time in history the pope has dedicated a day of prayer for one country’s misfortune.
Prayer might not have done much in concrete terms, but they managed to attract enough of the world’s attention, former Lebanese American University Associate Professor of political science Walid Moubarak told NOW.
“[The Vatican-Bkerki relationship] does [affect Lebanon] especially as Lebanon is under stress, the Vatican, through its spiritual and diplomatic weight, not to mention the meetings it calls for or the declarations it makes, tries to mobilize much international support for Lebanon and the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch latest efforts calling for Lebanon’s neutrality and the convening of an international conference to support this endeavor,” he said.
“No state within a state”
Neutrality does not make Lebanon the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, Moubarak pointed out. What Bkerki has in mind is not legal neutrality, he explains.
“I guess he means a voluntary neutrality that stems out of a decision by the government for reasons that are both geographic and demographic and maybe economic which is closer to what we call positive alignment,” Moubarak stressed.
What Rahi is calling for, concretely, is putting an end to Hezbollah’s right to hold weapons and Iranian influence over its actions. The idea finds support in large groups of the Lebanese population. In late February, Rahi held a large rally in Bkerki which saw the attendance of thousands in support of his ideas for a neutral Lebanon.
According to Bkerki’s definition of neutrality, no group or party should have any allegiances to any other country besides Lebanon. Rahi has been increasingly outspoken against Iran’s growing influence through its proxy Hezbollah, stating that “there are no two states in one land and no two armies in one state.”
“Lebanon’s departure from the policy of neutrality was the primary reason for it to get involved in wars … whenever some gravitate toward a certain regional and international axis, the people get divided and the Constitution is suspended,” the patriarch said during a speech at the rally.
Neutrality, but what next?
Rahi’s call for neutrality, however, has met criticism.
Carmen Geha, assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut, explained that Bkerki’s weakness lies in the lack of a concrete plan of governance.
“For me, it is a very dependent narrative of asking the world to come and save us without articulating a vision of why we would matter for the region, what it is neutrality would offer, why not annex Lebanon to the regional powers and just let them get it over with,” Geha told NOW.
“He, who has the time, as an institution, a thousand-year institution, should know better than to beg for mercy. He should put a proposal on the table but up until now, there is no proposal,” she added.
Iran’s increasing influence in Lebanon has also stoked fears amongst the Christians that Iran might try to push for a renegotiation of the partition that distributes the seat in Lebanese politics between the Christians and the Muslims, allowing the Christians to have an overwhelming majority of seats in the political sphere, and changing it to be distributed amongst Christians, Sunni and Shiite rather than combining the Sunni and Shiite into one group.
“He wants to do an international conference but what is the agenda of this international conference? It’s very ‘come and save us.”
Carmen Geha, assistant professor of public administration, AUB
While previous pushes for a neutral Lebanon have been unsuccessful, the 2019 uprising, which was a largely secular event that pushed for the end of sectarianism in Lebanon and the reforming of Lebanon’s politics, and multiple crises have allowed Rahi to push a renewed effort for this neutrality.
“What the patriarch did was he combined neutrality with two very important ingredients: an international conference for Lebanon and strategic defense,” Moubarak stated.
Strategic defense would put the power to go to war or get involved in a neighboring conflict solely under the authority of the Lebanese government and would act as a countermeasure to prevent Hezbollah from starting a war with Israel or sending its fighters to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad.
According to Moubarak, calling for an international conference run by the UN would give Rahi’s calls for neutrality international legitimacy, giving him more backing to push for neutrality back in Lebanon.
However, Geha is skeptical about the idea of holding a conference given the lack of details provided by Bkerki, making it seem like the conference is more wishful thinking rather than concrete steps to take action.
“He wants to do an international conference but what is the agenda of this international conference? It’s very ‘come and save us,'” she explained.
Bkerki vs Haret Hreik
Hezbollah and Iran were quick to respond to Rahi’s attacks on the duo with the Iranian Arabic language news website Al-Alam accusing Rahi of wanting to normalize relations with Israel and saying that the patriarch was motivated by “right-wing groups known for their close ties with Israel.”
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah also condemned the idea of getting the international community involved in solving Lebanon’s economic and political crises.
“Hezbollah believes that internationalization would pose an existential threat to Lebanon. What has internationalization done in Syria, Libya and Iraq?” Fadlallah asked.
“I don’t think that there is a problem with the Shiites. I think that there is a problem with Hezbollah, which is not the Shiite community.”
Michel Hajji Georgiou, political analyst
As much as they fall in line with Bkerki’s traditional political stances, Hezbollah has proved increased sensitivity to Rahi’s vocal calls for neutrality.
“I don’t think that we’ve ever seen this kind of Hezbollah retaliation on a religious figure like the way that they did with [Rahi],” Geha stated.
Hajji Georgiou believes that the Shiite community could get behind Bkerki and its push for neutrality since the Shiites have long been attached to the idea of Lebanon as a nation.
“If you go back to Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddine’s testament, I think that if he were alive today, he would have been one of the prominent members of the opposition to Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon,” he said. “I don’t think that there is a problem with the Shiites. I think that there is a problem with Hezbollah, which is not the Shiite community.”
Although the current situation in Lebanon may seem ripe for Bkerki to use its platform to influence Lebanon’s politics, its efforts may be falling on deaf ears outside of Lebanon as there has been little movement by the international community to get involved in Lebanon’s crises.
Since the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, there have been continued calls from the international community for Lebanon’s politicians to form a government and execute serious political and economic reforms or else they could face sanctions.
Over a year later, these calls continue, but no action has been taken.
“Nobody is going to listen to what Rahi is saying right now because the international community is not doing anything. They are just sending food and medical help rather than addressing the real problem – which is Hezbollah- because of the nuclear talks with Iran and economic interest also with Iran,” Hajji Georgiou stated. “So there is not much attention to what the patriarch is saying.”
Now, he goes and does these speeches like he did on August 4 basically saying “kilon yani kilon” (all of them means all of them) but [the politicians] just don’t seem to care!
Carmen Geha, assistant professor of public administration, AUB
The role of Bkerki is also being increasingly ignored by Lebanese politicians who, several years ago, would have taken what the patriarch was saying much more seriously.
“Before, it would have been ‘Oh my god, the patriarch is unhappy with the prime minister’ and caused an uproar,” Geha exclaimed.
“Now, he goes and does these speeches like he did on August 4 basically saying “kilon yani kilon” (all of them means all of them) but [the politicians] just don’t seem to care!”
Even the president, who by Lebanon’s sectarian law needs to be a Maronite Christian, is ignoring Rahi’s criticism for stalling the formation of a government, she said.
“It would be unheard of that the mufti would say that the prime minister is basically a loser or corrupt,” Geha explained. “That, today, is basically the patriarchy’s position with Aoun and they [the politicians] don’t seem to care.”
Nicholas Frakes is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. He tweets @nicfrakesjourno.