The Maronite Church is determined to defend its rights after the arrest of the Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land over money and medicine intended for families separated by the war, rejecting accusations of links with Israel.
Tension is growing between Cardinal Béchara Raï, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and Hezbollah. A look back at a complex affair which has distant roots in the years-long strained relations between Bkirké, seat of the patriarchy, and the Shiite militia.
A Situation of War
Since the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in 2000, Lebanese families have taken refuge in Israel. In Lebanon, they are considered traitors and accused of having collaborated with Israel, because the Jewish state is considered an enemy against which Lebanon is still at war.
Lebanese law prohibits any kind of economic relationship with Israeli citizens. According to Article 285 of the penal code, any Lebanese who tries to make a commercial transaction, purchase, sale or barter with a citizen of the enemy state is liable to a prison sentence of at least one year.
However, movements by the Maronite clergy on both sides of the border are protected by a clause in the 1949 armistice agreement with Israel. But anything concerning the conveyance of funds not belonging to the Church is prohibited.
The Terrible Economic Crisis
Lebanon is currently in a dramatic situation: debt crisis, collapse of the banking system, continuous devaluation of the currency, and increase in the cost of living, crowned by the explosion of the port of Beirut, which put the last nail in the coffin of the Lebanese economy.
Added to this is a social and political crisis, such that 80% of the population is now living below the poverty line and suffering from shortages of medicine, electricity, and fuel. While trust in the country's political and financial elite has disappeared, the Maronite Church tries to alleviate the miseries of the Lebanese, in particular by channeling money and medicine from Israel.
On Monday, July 18, 2002, at 11:30 a.m., the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and Jerusalem, Msgr. Moussa el-Hage, was arrested at the border by General Security (SG) on the orders of Judge Fadi Akiki, and was then questioned for 12 hours. He was released around midnight, after being relieved of his passport, his cell phone, and an amount of 460,000 dollars as well as medication.
A press release published on Thursday July 21 by the SG, indicated that they consider the measure in question as “legal.” On the part of Bkirké, it is considered that the incident has created a serious precedent: one cannot question an archbishop without referring to his hierarchical authority.
The archbishop is charged with acts concerning the channeling of funds from an enemy state as well as the import of Israeli medicines, the prescriptions are written in Hebrew and the information on the boxes are also written in Hebrew.
Kassem Hachem, a deputy from the Amal parliamentary group, believes that such acts “violate the laws on the boycott of Israel. … Whatever the aid, it must not come from an enemy state,” stressing that “those who violate these laws are exposed to prosecution.”
According to the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar, the archbishop gave money to a Lebanese army soldier who was recruited by the Mossad and then tried by the military court. He would also have been warned that the money he was carrying was provided by Lebanese convicted of collaborating with Israel and was likely to be confiscated because it came from a hostile state.
Bishop Hage Refutes These Accusations
The archbishop rejects all these accusations as a whole. In an interview with L'Orient - Le Jour (OLJ), he explains that the sums transported “are aid (which he) has been sending to families for months. He has been rendering this service for ten years. Since the explosion of the port on August 4, 2020 and the economic collapse, the sums have increased because the need has become greater.”
“Every person in the occupied territories who wants to send money to their family in Lebanon comes to the parish to give me the envelope. Those who arrested me claim that this money is intended for the families of the agents of Israel. It is not from any agents, but the Lebanese who fled to Israel,” he added.
Contacted by the OLJ, the former minister Sejaan Azzi, close to the Maronite patriarch, assures that the activity reproached to Msgr. Hage is “habitual, social, humanitarian and religious. (…) It has been carried out since the 19th century,” he says.
In the interview he gave to L'OLJ, Moussa el-Hage assures that “the point of his arrest is to send a strong message to the patriarch.” This is taking place in a dual political context. On the one hand, Patriarch Raï issues multiple criticisms against Hezbollah and calls for affirming the neutrality of Lebanon, which has the effect of annoying the Shiite militia.
On the other hand, the secretary general of the Shiite party, Hassan Nasrallah, has recently been talking about the risks of an imminent war with Israel. In this context, it is likely that the party seeks to make an example of any person or action that may have a direct or indirect link with the Jewish state.
Cardinal Raï’s Strong Reaction
“What happened is an insult to the Maronite Church, to the patriarchy, and to me personally,” thundered Cardinal Béchara Raï on Sunday July 24, in front of a crowd of faithful gathered to support him in front of the summer seat of the Maronite Patriarchate in Dimane, in northern Lebanon.
“Lebanon is becoming a police state,” warned Patriarch Raï, “an inquisitorial state in which everyone watches everyone else, a state of widespread suspicion and denunciation.”
The Cardinal continues: “Using Israel and solidarity with the Palestinians as a pretext to justify the arrest of a bishop and to impose an impermeable blockade on all humanitarian transit to Lebanon is an attack on a long-acquired right not only by the Maronite Church, but also by the Greek Catholic Church, which also has an episcopal see in Haifa.”
Support from the Latin Patriarchate
This position is in line with that expressed by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem which, in the words of Msgr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, considers that it is “necessary for the preservation of the presence of Christians in the Holy Land” to promote “solidarity with Christians from the Middle-East.”
“We fully approve of Archbishop Moussa El Hage,” said Bishop Pizzaballa, “for the charitable work he generously accomplishes by regularly bringing material aid and medicines collected by benefactors to poor Lebanese families of all religions - Christian, Muslims, and Druze – in great difficulty.”
“It would be a collective punishment for the Lebanese, forced to reside in Israel, and for the Maronite communities of the Holy Land, to prohibit any humanitarian transit between Israel and Lebanon,” he concludes. Patriarch Rai said he was determined to challenge the bans, which he considers to be “political,” and continue the mission of the Maronite Church.