Maronite patriarch threatened by Hezbollah supporters after calling for Lebanese neutrality in region

Maronite patriarch threatened by Hezbollah supporters after calling for Lebanese neutrality in region

Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, at the Vatican March 5, 2013. / InterMirifica.net

Bkerke, Lebanon, Aug 13, 2021 / 11:01 am (CNA).

The leader of the Maronite Catholic Church received threats from Hezbollah supporters this week after calling for an end to missile launches from Lebanese territory.

Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai had called for peace, saying that Lebanon should remain neutral in regional conflicts in his Aug. 8 homily, two days after Hezbollah fired 19 rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon.

Without mentioning Hezbollah by name, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch said that it was unacceptable for “a party to make decisions on war” without the quorum of two thirds required by the country’s constitution.

“We call upon the Lebanese army … to prevent the launching of missiles from Lebanese territory, not for the sake of Israel’s safety, but rather for the safety of Lebanon,” Cardinal Rai said.

Supporters of Hezbollah responded by threatening the cardinal’s life with social media posts that pictured Cardinal Rai with a noose around his neck. 

In a Facebook post, a person from Beirut’s south suburbs wrote in Arabic: “You don’t think we know how to hang?” and “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…Initiator [Patriarch] shall bear the brunt of blame.”

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In Defence of Christians, a human rights organization that has sources on in Lebanon, told CNA that there have been people in the streets in predominantly Shiite areas calling Rai a traitor and Zionist collaborator.

Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political and militant group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The group has strong alliances with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and with Iran in its conflicts with Sunni-majority Gulf states.

Political leaders within Lebanon and abroad sent messages of solidarity to the Maronite patriarch after the public threats.

President Michel Aoun met with Rai Aug. 13 after having condemned any threat made to the cardinal for a difference of opinion, according to the patriarchate. Lebanese MP Simon Abi Ramia also expressed solidarity, as did U.S. Congressmen Brad Sherman and Tim Burchett.

“The patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, Patriarch Rai, is just calling for peace. He is not making a political statement. If Hezbollah and Israel go to war, Lebanese civilians will suffer,” Toufic Baaklini, the president of In Defence of Christians, said at an online briefing on the situation in Lebanon Aug. 12.

“Hezbollah should not be firing rockets from civilian population centers in Lebanon. The Lebanese people are not human shields.”

Lebanon is facing both a financial and political crisis as political leaders have failed to form a government to implement reforms after the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port last year.

The World Bank has described the current financial situation in Lebanon as among the “most severe crisis episodes globally since the mid-19th century.”

It estimates that Lebanon’s real GDP contracted by more than 20% in 2020, with surging inflation, high unemployment, and more than half of the population below the national poverty line.

Lebanon’s currency plummeted in 2021. By June, the Lebanese pound had lost 90% of its value since October 2019.

Throughout the crisis, Cardinal Rai has repeatedly urged the country’s political leaders to “overcome the logic of partisan interests” and form a government to rescue the country.

The cardinal offered a Mass to mark the one year anniversary of the Beirut bombing Aug. 4. The devastating blast killed 207 people and wounded an estimated 6,500.

“Many wanted this anniversary of the Beirut port explosion to be a day of anger, demonstrations and condemnations. But I assure everyone that the divine words that we have heard are the most effective, surest, and truly comforting for wounded hearts. God’s voice calls out to the conscience of every person responsible for this explosion,” Rai said in his homily.

“God’s voice calls out … just as with Cain … and he says: ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’”