Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch calls for all parties to adopt ‘active neutrality’

Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rai stresses that policy of active neutrality would allow Lebanon to build on the good relations it already has with many countries. (AN photo)
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Updated 18 September 2020

Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch calls for all parties to adopt ‘active neutrality’

  • Says Lebanon has historically been neutral until 1975 when the Cairo Agreement allowed the Palestinians to carry out military operations against Israel
  • Disagrees with Hezbollah’s claim that neutrality would encourage Israeli aggression, or mean that Lebanon could not defend itself

BEIRUT: In an exclusive interview with Arab News on Wednesday, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite church, Bechara Al-Rai, called for all of the many political factions in the country — which has just marked its centenary — to support his call to adopt ‘active neutrality,’ describing it as “part of the Lebanese identity.”

“Lebanon has (historically) been neutral,” the patriarch said. “But since 1975, we have lost our neutrality — first when the Cairo Agreement allowed the Palestinians to carry out military operations against Israel from Lebanese territory, then with the civil war, which led to the emergence of different militias. So, active neutrality is a return to our roots, to our own identity.”

With the exception of Hezbollah, which he said has not expressed a position yet, Al-Rai claimed that no party in Lebanon opposes neutrality, but that “probably a few take advantage of the current situation and are just sitting on the fence.”

Al-Rai disagrees with Hezbollah’s claim that neutrality would encourage Israeli aggression, or mean that Lebanon could not defend itself.

“Neutrality comprises three inseparable and complementary elements,” he said. The first is that Lebanon, because of its size, “has no interest in being part of the conflicts and wars in the region.” The second is that the country’s “mission” is to be a place “where all nations can come together and get along.”

And the third that a Lebanon not “fragmented into several republics” could establish “a strong state, with an army and institutions that can exercise its sovereignty within its territory … and defend itself from any aggression.”

He added: “Hezbollah has its own vested interests that are not necessarily aligned with those of Lebanon.”

The need for unity is urgent, Al-Rai continued. “Today, we are committing suicide. We cannot sacrifice Lebanon for the sake of a person or party, whether it is Hezbollah or others.”

A policy of active neutrality would allow Lebanon to build on the good relations it already has with many countries, Al-Rai believes, but also to forge new international relations.

While he welcomed the recent decisions by the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel, he stressed: “I am not saying that (Lebanon) should normalize relations with Israel today,” but added that the roots of the recent deals could be found in an initiative launched at the Arab League Summit in Beirut in 2002.

Al-Rai also took the opportunity to thank the many countries to have provided support to Lebanon since the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4. “This shows that Lebanon, this small country, is well-cherished.”

But, he added, “Lebanon must live up to this vision of the international and Arab community. It needs to form a government, and its politicians must no longer care about their personal interests, but must put those of Lebanon first.”

He said Lebanon’s politicians should feel “ashamed” that French President Emmanuel Macron “rushed to Lebanon in the aftermath of the double explosion, while no Lebanese politician dared to go to the bedside of the people.”

“Our politicians are now declaring themselves innocent of their responsibilities,” Al-Rai said. “It is as if it was the duty of France or any state to come and help Lebanon ward off the negligence of its political leaders.”

More must be done, Al-Rai said, to ensure that the Lebanese people are able not just to survive in their country, but thrive — and to dissuade so many Lebanese from leaving the country.

“Words are not enough. We use words, principles, patriotism, but this is not enough. They need to eat, to work, to be able to build their future and achieve their dreams. The responsibility falls on politicians. Economic conditions in the country need to be improved. The Lebanese must be able to live with dignity and find a job. We must also ensure their safety. It is not okay to have all these guns all over the place in people’s hands, shooting and killing for whatever reason. Life has value,” he said.

“Therefore, we need a neutral state, a strong state imposing its sovereignty throughout the country, ensuring the security of all its citizens, providing them a normal economic and social life,” he continued. “This is the neutral state that we are advocating — the state as it was before it tumbled.”

Leader of banned charity leader seeks asylum from Turkey amid Macron-Erdogan row

Updated 30 min 25 sec ago

Leader of banned charity leader seeks asylum from Turkey amid Macron-Erdogan row

  • Sihamedi, the founder of the BarakaCity NGO, claimed that he no longer felt safe in France

ANKARA: The prospect of granting asylum to Idriss Sihamedi, the founder of a Muslim charity that has been shut down in France over his alleged ties to the “radical Islamist movement,” stirred debate about the potential repercussions amid the already escalating French-Turkish spat.

The Turkish interior ministry announced on Oct. 29 that Ankara will assess Sihamedi’s request for himself and his team after receiving his official application.

Sihamedi, the founder of the BarakaCity NGO, claimed that he no longer felt safe in France. His NGO was closed officially on Oct. 28 on the grounds that it “incites hate, has relations with the radical Islamist movement and justifies terrorist acts.”

He posted his asylum request on his official Twitter account in both French and Turkish, tagging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He also alleged he had received death threats.

His post received a quick reply from the Turkish interior ministry’s migration management department: “Hello Sihamedi. If you and your colleagues were to personally apply to our institution with your surname, first name, identity information, petition for an asylum request and your passport number, your request will be assessed.”

However, experts think that proceeding with the asylum request of such radicals means playing with fire.

“I think Erdogan is continuing to play a dangerous game by courting relationships with radical figures and in some cases jihadists,” Colin Clarke, senior research fellow on terror-financing networks at the Soufan Center, told Arab News. “Turkey is already viewed as a hot spot for jihadists given its proximity to Iraq and Syria.”

Sihamedi is accused of inciting hatred, encouraging people to violent acts, maintaining relations within the radical Islamist movement, money laundering in the name of Salafi organisations and expressing support for Hitler and the Nazis. He is also blamed for organizing suicide attacks and supporting Daesh.

According to Clarke, if Turkey grants asylum to Sihamedi and his team, it may create trouble, both domestically but also with NATO allies.

“Moving forward with actions like this could easily backfire on Turkey and cause considerable blowback. I find these overt flirtations with radical Islamists counterproductive and short-sighted,” he said.

Sihamedi was deported from Turkey last year in May at France’s request and his passport was confiscated at Istanbul airport.

BarakaCity was founded in 2010 in Evry-Courcouronnes (Essonne). The Islamic humanitarian NGO has been closely monitored by French intelligence since 2014. Its buildings were raided several times in 2015 and 2017, and it was investigating for “terrorist financing” and “terrorist criminal association” for three years.

The NGO has said it wants to move its headquarters to another country. At a time when relations between Paris and Ankara are more strained than ever, the Turkish branch of the NGO is headed by a Franco-Turkish national known for his Salafi credentials.

“The French government dissolved BarakaCity also because in the past the NGO received money from Samy Amimour, a member of the Bataclan terrorist commando group in  2015, and from Larossi Abballa, who in 2016 killed a policeman and his wife in Magnanville,” said Matteo Pugliese, associate research fellow at Milan-based think tank ISPI.

“According to the French government, BarakaCity provides a sort of ideological justification for violent radicals, especially when it calls for the punishment of those who publish cartoons or criticize Islam. I think that we are talking about a grey zone, where non-violent extremism meets violent radicalization.”

Sihamedi was released under judicial supervision and is due to face trial in December.

French government also announced plans to dissolve other associations suspected of supporting extremist ideologies.

“If Turkey grants asylum to Sihamedi, France will use this to accuse the country of sheltering Islamists who radicalize people with online propaganda,” Pugliese said. “This is part of the verbal escalation between Macron and Erdogan and will be used by both for political internal goals.”