By Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis, Reuters
BEIRUT -Lebanon’s top Christian cleric has made unusually direct comments criticizing the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, accusing it of harming the country by dragging it into regional conflicts.
“I want to tell them…You want us to stay in a state of war that you decide? Are you asking us before you go to war?” Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said in a leaked video circulated by local media on Thursday, in which he mentioned the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“You’re not looking out for (our) interests, nor the interests of your people,” he said, apparently addressing Hezbollah, a heavily-armed movement allied to its backer Tehran in regional wars.
Rai said he had received visits from Hezbollah supporters who were privately critical of the group as they felt the force of Lebanon’s financial collapse.
“We get people from Hezbollah. They come to us to tell us: ‘this arsenal is against us, we can no longer endure’. Because they are also hungry like us,” he said.
The video marked his strongest criticism yet of Hezbollah, which along with its political allies holds sway in Lebanon’s parliament.
The patriarch wields influence in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church, from which the president must be drawn under a sectarian power-sharing system.
Rai has called for Lebanon to remain neutral in regional conflicts, referring to Hezbollah’s deployment of fighters to neighbouring Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad alongside Shi’ite militias, as well as its alliance with Iran in a power struggle with Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah’s opponents say its relationship with Tehran has kept away Gulf Arab states that once funnelled money into Lebanon, closing off an important source of aid.
Lebanon’s financial meltdown has crashed the currency, fueling poverty and hunger, its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war that fractured the country along sectarian lines.