Rai’s Call for Lebanon’s Neutrality Strains Relations with Hezbollah
The Hezbollah party appears unresponsive to Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai’s call for Lebanon to remain neutral from regional developments.
A joint committee, formed in the 1990s, comprised of representatives of the Patriarchate and the party usually assumes the role of bridging divides between the two sides. The committee became more active after Rai became patriarch. Prior to that, relations between the Patriarchate and Hezbollah were often strained during the term of his late predecessor Nasrallah Sfeir, who was a vocal critic of the party and its weapons and the Syrian regime.
The committee does not appear to be holding a meeting any time soon even though both parties involved have said that nothing is holding them back. The criticism expressed by Hezbollah supporters on social media of Rai’s call for neutrality, however, tell a different story and may delay the committee meeting even further.
Maronite Bishop Samir Mazloum said the committee may meet at any moment. He told Asharq Al-Awsat there was no reason for it to cease its meetings or dialogue. Contacts with Hezbollah and other sides take place from the Patriarchate’s position of openness to everyone, he went on to say.
Moreover, Rai’s call for neutrality was not directed at Hezbollah, he added. “The suggestion benefits all Lebanese without exception. Rai was seeking rapprochement between parties.”
Information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat revealed that the committee last met some four months ago. The panel does not have a specific schedule for its talks.
Sources close to Hezbollah said that it used to meet every 15 days, every month or every three months. As of yet, there appears to be no meeting scheduled for the near future, they told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Relations between Hezbollah and Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate, are “generally good”, they stressed, citing visits and communication between the two sides over several issues. “Today, however, we are separating the positive relationship with Bkirki from the proposal on neutrality, which we prefer not comment on,” they stated.
Political analyst and Hezbollah expert Qassem Kassir said the party has taken the decision not to officially comment on Rai’s call. It is seeking greater clarifications about his proposal, which is seen as still vague.
The party has left it to President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and its allies, such as MP Gebran Bassil, former minister Suleiman Franjieh and others to comment on the suggestion, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Hezbollah today is more concerned about the living and economic crisis sweeping Lebanon, Kassir remarked. He speculated that party chief Hassan Nasrallah may address the call for neutrality during a speech on August 13 to mark the anniversary of the end of the July 2006 war.
This is not the first time that relations between Rai and Hezbollah become strained. Back in 2014, the party was critical of the patriarch’s decision to travel to Jerusalem to meet with Pope Francis, saying that such a visit may have repercussions. It marked the first time a Maronite patriarch visited Jerusalem since Israel’s formation in 1948.