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Archbishop's arrest upon return from Israel upsets Lebanon's Christians

Lebanon Christians protest
Protesters raise crosses and chant slogans as they gather during a rally at the current patriarch's summer residence in Diman in north Lebanon on July 24, 2022, to condemn the detention and questioning of a Maronite archbishop over crossing into Israel. |

Lebanon's Maronite Christian community has voiced its concern over the arrest and interrogation of their Archbishop Musa al-Hajj in his own country as he returned from an aid trip to Israel, reports say.

The arrest at the border crossing and the interrogation had been ordered by the Military Court's Government Commissioner, Judge Fadi Akiki, on July 19, according to the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy.

Musa al-Hajj is not only the archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land but also the patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem, the Palestinian Territories and the Hashemite Kingdom, the group noted in a statement.

The archbishop's trip to Israel involved visiting the Christian Maronite community, many of them refugees from the 1975-1990 civil war.

AMCD claims Al-Hajj was interrogated "on the flimsy excuse" that he may have helped some Lebanese people struggling under their collapsing economy obtain some relief from relatives who had fled to Israel, according to AMCD.

Arab News reports the archbishop was accused of bringing in a large sum of U.S. dollars to Lebanon and was detained for 11 hours before the involvement of church officials and the judiciary led to his release. 

According to International Christian Concern,  Al-Hajj received a summons for military court interrogations and a travel ban imposed by military courts. 

An official close to the case told AFP, that Hajj ignored the military court summons issued for allegedly violating boycott laws imposed on Israel and money laundering.

AMCD reports that "Lebanese sources believe this is an attempt to pressure (Maronite) Patriarch al-Rahi to change his position in favor of UN resolution 1559 regarding the disarming of all militias and liberating Lebanon from all foreign meddling, specifically from the domination of the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah."

AMCD is concerned about the use of Lebanese military courts against civilians.

"This military court has issued many other arrest warrants against those opposing the terrorist organization Hezbollah, even against American citizens, in an apparent effort to stifle their activism and freedom of speech. This abuse of power has been going on for some time but has escalated recently," the statement added.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi and other clerics called the arrest a "charade."

"We demand... the confiscated aid be returned to the archbishop so that it can reach its beneficiaries," they said in a statement, according to AFP. 

On Sunday, Christians gathered in protest in the courtyard of the patriarch’s place of residence in Dimane. 

Over 60 percent of Lebanon's population is Muslim, mostly from Sunni, Shi'a and Alawite sects. Christians form over one-third of the population.

Under a decades-old power-sharing agreement in Lebanon, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian while the premier is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The patriarch has spoken publicly about the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for October, which will select a new Maronite president, as well as concerns about the political coercion of Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy, ICC noted.

In a Sunday sermon, Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi reportedly said Christians want a president "committed to the Lebanese cause, national constants, Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and who abides by the principle of neutrality."

"We cannot call for Lebanon's neutrality and choose a president who is biased toward certain axes," he said. 

Lebanon's former President Amin Gemayel also commented on the archbishop's arrest.

"Arresting Al-Hajj while on a pastoral and humanitarian mission and summoning him for investigation before the military court constitute a harsh blow by a political-judicial-security narrow-minded thinking against the role represented by the archbishop of the holy land through his care for the conditions of the Maronites, as well as all other Christian and Muslim denominations in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories," Gemayel said in a statement shared with Arab News. 

Maltese Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the Vatican's envoy to Lebanon, said the arrest sets a "dangerous" precedent, according to All Arab News

Samir Geagea, leader of the growing Christian-backed Lebanese Forces, said in a statement the archbishop's detainment was "not comprehensible at all."

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