Lebanon’s top Christian cleric, Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, 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 havoc.
“I assert that there has been no sincere and clear position with regards to neutrality from Hezbollah,” Al-Rai 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 of 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 Shiite Muslim Hezbollah 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.
The small Mediterranean country of six million has been gripped by a spiraling crisis and soaring poverty since late 2019 due to a severe financial meltdown, economic mismanagement and government corruption. Its bickering sectarian leaders have failed to form a cabinet, leaving the country rudderless since its last prime minister stepped down after a massive 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 pound currency lose nearly 90% of its value, is far worse than Lebanon’s bloody civil war of 1975-1990 and that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system, is the least of their concerns.
‘Today it is hell’
“I haven’t heard yet directly from Hezbollah if he is against or with neutrality,” Patriarch Rai 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-Rai added. “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 former 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-Rai said. “And shouldn’t be capable of deciding wars in Israel, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, with disregard to the government, the president and the parliament. So the idea of the mutual defense strategy was raised but it wasn’t realized.”
“Hezbollah like the army or any other army in the world is not entitled to make a decision or to decide to go into war or peace, the state is the one which decides,” he added.
“But the cause of Hezbollah and the arms is much bigger than Lebanon and has to be addressed on the international level.”
The patriarch added that he had met once with the group previously, but “we discussed issues that don’t have anything to do with arms, because this is something that is beyond us.”
‘Iran is the source’
Patriarch Al-Rai described Lebanon as having asked the United States “not to make Lebanon a negotiating card between the U.S. and Iran when they want to settle the nuclear issue,” referring to Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
“The issue of arms should also be addressed with Iran because Iran is the source,” he added, directly calling out Iran. “And it’s very well known that Hezbollah (is) an Iranian military force in Lebanon to combat Israel. Why should they combat Israel from Lebanon, if you want to fight Israel why do you want to use the Lebanese territory?”
“We want an international conference and also we want the Security Council to take resolutions around the arms issue and the militias that exist in Lebanon. And around the issue of Lebanon extending its sovereignty on all the Lebanese territory,” Al-Rai said.
His call for a U.N.-sponsored international conference has been slammed by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who previously argued it would enable foreign interference.
The issue of Lebanon’s sovereignty over its full territory, put forward at the U.N. in previous resolutions, should be addressed on a multilateral level, the patriarch stressed — “not on the internal Lebanese level.”