U.S. bishops voice support for detained Maronite archbishop

A scene from a papal visit to Lebanon, Sept. 14, 2012. / Vatican Media

According to his supporters, a Maronite Catholic archbishop was bringing supplies to Lebanon when he was stopped by Lebanese officials at the Israeli border. The bishops of the United States have defended him against the removal of medical assistance and hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid.

“The arbitrary detention and interrogation of Archbishop Moussa El-Hage, the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, by Lebanese security, is cause for alarm,” Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said Aug. 12.

“The archbishop was returning from one of his regular visits to the Holy Land and bringing much-needed aid that the Lebanese diaspora in Israel wanted to send to family members in Lebanon,” Malloy said. “All this was confiscated by Lebanese security forces, along with his cell phone and passport.”

The U.S. bishops referenced positively the statement from the Permanent Synod of Maronite Bishops condemning the imprisonment of their colleague bishop. After a July 20 meeting organised by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai, the bishops released the statement.

According to the Maronite bishops, the incident “brought us back to the times of occupation and rulers in the previous centuries, when the invaders and occupiers were trying to undermine the role of the Church in Lebanon and the East and its brotherhood between religions.”

The U.S. bishops underlined that Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, described the imprisonment as “a dangerous precedent.”

Cardinal Rai had criticised the arrest of the archbishop as a fabrication and said that the seized funds were meant for charity causes.

The Maronite Catholic Church is the biggest Christian denomination in Lebanon, where Christians account for over 35 percent of the country’s seven million inhabitants. Approximately sixty percent of the Lebanese population is Muslim, with roughly equal numbers of Shiite and Sunni members.

According to the Associated Press, tensions have increased between the Maronite Church and Lebanon’s Shia Muslim Hezbollah party, which is supported by Iran. The religious power-sharing constitution of Lebanon stipulates that the country’s president must always be a Maronite. The current president, Michel Aoun, is a supporter of Hezbollah. Hezbollah and its supporters are now tied with its enemies in the country’s parliament.

In general, Hezbollah’s adversaries condemn the group’s control over Lebanese institutions and security services, claiming it is used to attack the Maronite Church.

Also supporting Archbishop El-Hage is the religious advisory board of the American organisation In Defense of Christians. In a statement issued on July 20, the board said that the archbishop’s incarceration “occurred in flagrant disregard of his pastoral duty” and posed a danger to Lebanon’s legacy of religious freedom.

The board, which consists of two Maronite bishops located in the United States, described the detention as “an apparent attempt to intimidate Maronite Patriarch Rai for his opposition to Hezbollah’s political coercion.” It emphasised the patriarch’s request for complete sovereignty and neutrality in Lebanon, as well as the “unconditional enforcement” of United Nations resolutions for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

El-Hage was seized by Lebanese border authorities on July 19. According to the Associated Press, the officials took 20 bags laden with medication and $460,000 in cash, citing regulations prohibiting normalisation with Israel. The archbishop said that he was transporting funds and relief from Lebanese Christians in northern Israel to their family in Lebanon, which is experiencing a severe economic crisis.

Israel and Lebanon have been officially at war since the establishment of Israel in 1948. After Israel terminated its control of various southern Lebanon provinces in the year 2000, thousands of Lebanese fled to Israel. Many of these Lebanese had ties to the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army, which disbanded after the Israeli withdrawal.

The Jerusalem Post reported on July 22 that the presiding judge in the case, Fadi Akiki, informed the Lebanese daily Annahar that the funding originated from Israeli citizens “the bulk of whom labour for the enemy.”

He noted that the money is subject to legislation governing anything entering Lebanon from Israel. According to the court, the archbishop was not detained but was subject to the same border check laws as everyone else.

“I respect the church, but there is a law that is the boycott of Israel and it is my duty as a judge to implement it,” the judge said.

The U.S. bishops’ conference voiced support for the Maronite Church.

“As Lebanon goes through difficult times and crises, we renew our stand in solidarity with Cardinal Rai and the Synod of Bishops,” Bishop Malloy said Aug. 12. “We also pray for the protection of the Church in Lebanon and its charitable work as it comes under increasing pressure. We further support the call of Patriarch Rai for the ‘active neutrality’ of Lebanon, so that it will remain a place of conviviality between Christians and Muslims and a beacon of hope for all Christians of the Middle East. May Lebanon prosper again and enjoy total sovereignty and lasting peace.”

In the United States, there are two Maronite eparchies. In a letter to Cardinal Rai dated July 29, both Maronite bishops expressed “deep saddened” over Archbishop El-arrest Hage’s and arrest.

Bishops Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn and A. Elias Zaidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon in Los Angeles expressed their support with the cardinal, the Synod of Bishops, and “all our suffering brothers and sisters in Lebanon.”

“Lebanon is a beautiful country, where religious beliefs are a bridge, not a hindrance, to conviviality and cooperation,” they said, voicing support for the “active neutrality” of Lebanon.

“If we do not stand united as one people working together for the future of our country, we are liable to fall victim to outside influence,” the two bishops said, voicing prayers for a peaceful, sovereign and prosperous Lebanon.

In their capacity as honorary chairmen of the religious advisory board for In Defense of Christians, Cardinals Wilton Gregory of Washington, Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and Timothy Dolan of New York expressed solidarity for the jailed Lebanese archbishop in a statement issued on July 31.

“Archbishop El-Hage is the spiritual shepherd of many peoples and he travels between those lands regularly. His recent arrest, detention and interrogation by Lebanese authorities upon his return from his Episcopal See in Haifa — as well as the confiscation of medical and financial aid intended for the needy in Lebanon — are most disturbing,” they said.

“We applaud Cardinal Rai and the Maronite Synod for their firm support of Archbishop El-Hage. In the interest of regional stability and human rights, we further support calls for positive action to protect Church leadership, their charitable work, and lay Christians in the Middle East,” the three cardinals said.

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