BEIRUT: Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi has expressed the church’s increasing dismay over the arrest of a senior Lebanese Maronite religious leader. 

The move “purposely constitutes an attack on the Maronite Patriarchate and its powers,“ Al-Rahi told a crowd of protesters gathered in the church’s courtyard at the patriarch’s place of residence in Dimane on Sunday.

Bishop Musa Al-Hajj, archbishop of the Maronite archdiocese of Haifa and the patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories and the territories of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was arrested at the Al-Naqoura crossing between Lebanon and Israel after a visit to his parish in the holy territories.

Bishop Al-Hajj faced a long interrogation by the general security service pursuant to a judicial decision.

The medicines, aid and sum of money he received from Lebanese who fled to Israel 22 years ago to deliver them to their families in Lebanon were seized.

He was also subject to a travel ban and was referred to the military court.

Al-Rahi affirmed that “what bishop Musa Al-Hajj faced violated the dignity of the church.”

Al-Rahi said that it was not permitted to prosecute a bishop without referring to his authority, which is the Patriarchate.

“We reject these actions with political implications and we demand that the bishop’s seized belongings, including his passport, mobile phone, the aid, money and medicines, be returned to him, as Lebanese in the holy occupied lands entrusted him to deliver this aid to their families in Lebanon from all sects,” he said.

“That is what the Maronite bishops used to do for years in the past and what he should continue doing in the future.”

Addressing those “harming Lebanon,” Al-Rahi also said: “Stop saying that the aid was coming from agents and look for these agents elsewhere. You know where they are and who they are.”

Al-Rahi said that Bishop Al-Hajj “maintains the Christian, Palestinian and Arab presence inside Israel and deserves to be praised and supported instead of attacking his dignity and honorable message.”

He also said that the Maronite presence in Palestine dated back to the early times of the emergence of the people of Saint Maroun.

Maronites have played an important role there that is praised by those from other sects, Al-Rahi said.

“The dominant ruling party is trying in vain to turn the political attack targeting Bishop Al-Hajj and violating the dignity of the church and its representatives into a mere baseless judicial matter in order to hide their guilt and add unconvincing explanations and interpretations,” he said,

“If there’s a law that prohibits anyone from bringing humanitarian aid into the country, let them show it to us.”

“It’s about time we change the reality filled with hatred and hostility.”

Al-Rai said that Lebanon “cannot be built, progress and unify through this approach that does not reflect the values of its people and history.”

“Those who implement these policies and make up these files should learn from their predecessors and the experiences that prove that bad people cannot be part of Lebanon’s honorable history.”

In his sermon, the Maronite patriarch called for “the formation of a new government as soon as possible and the election of a new president within the constitutional deadlines.”

A resounding round of applause was heard in the church’s hall when the patriarch talked of the necessity of electing a new president, and when he said: “Go and look for these agents elsewhere. You know where they are and who they are.”

Al-Rahi said that the laws stipulated that no bishop or priest should be prosecuted without the patriarch’s permission. “What happened constitutes an attack on and an insult to the Maronite Patriarchate and me personally.”

Former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar argued that “Lebanon has already signed Code 1060 issued by the Eastern Churches, stipulating that only the Roman pontiff has the right to prosecute bishops in criminal cases. Therefore, no civilian or military authority has the right to prosecute any bishop in criminal cases.”

What further enraged the Christian community and prompted the Maronite patriarch’s heightened protest was Hezbollah’s statement on Saturday delivered by the head of his parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Raad.

He said: “Colluding with the enemy is national treason and a crime. An agent does not represent his sect. But when the agent is punished, he becomes a representative of the entire sect that comes together to defend him. What is this ambivalence?”

Commenting on Al-Rahi’s remarks, MP Nadim Gemayel said: “It looks like colluding with the enemy became a point of view. Doesn’t it also apply to those who publicly express their devotion to Iran and drag Lebanon into conflicts that only serve the Iranian project?”

“Doesn’t it apply to those who smuggled flour and diesel to Syria?”

Patriarch Al-Rahi maintains Lebanon’s neutrality, a concept rejected by Hezbollah and its allies.

The incident of Al-Hajj’s detention reached its peak after Al-Rahi stressed Lebanon’s need for a neutral president.

A source in the Maronite Patriarchate said that the message was received after the detention and interrogation of Bishop Al-Hajj.

However, in a statement issued by its bishops, the Patriarchate said that it has two demands — the return of the confiscated items to Bishop Al-Hajj and the dismissal of the interim government commissioner of the military court, Fadi Akiki, on whose orders bishop Al-Hajj was interrogated. 

Akiki is close to Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s ally.

The number of Lebanese who fled to Israel in 2000 during its occupation of southern Lebanon is estimated at 6,000 individuals.

Dozens of them returned to Lebanon in the following years after being tried, whereas hundreds of them moved to the US and European countries where they now live.

About 3,000 Lebanese citizens remained in Israel.

The Christian protest was not limited to the Maronite church.

“Any criminal, thief and lawbreaker should be held accountable and punished. However, what happened with Bishop Al-Hajj is unacceptable and shows that there is a new security and judicial approach leading to serious repercussions nationwide,“ Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop Elias Aoude of Beirut said in his Sunday sermon.

“This is a dangerous and unacceptable thing and we hope it won’t happen again.”

Aoude said that if Bishop Al-Hajj’s detention was a “message to the church to silence it, then we say that the church cannot be intimidated. It only fears its God, and listens to the voice of conscience and duty.”