BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s influential Christian Maronite church has warned that the country is facing the threat of a “full-fledged coup,” and called for an international conference to avert “chaos, hunger and oppression.”
In an emotional address to thousands of followers on Saturday, Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said that he was “drawing red lines for anyone who harbors evil for Lebanon, regardless of their sect.”
His comments were widely seen as a veiled reference to Iran-backed Hezbollah along with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and its founder President Michel Aoun.
“We are facing a full-fledged coup attempt,” Al-Rai told Lebanese who traveled to the church’s headquarters in Bkerke to support his demand for a UN-sponsored international conference to save Lebanon.
In response to the patriarch’s speech, people chanted: “Hezbollah is terrorist,” “Get out, Iran” and “Michel Aoun, leave.”
Cries of “Revolution! Revolution!” were also heard.
The Bkerke rally went ahead despite measures to limit gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, with some observers suggesting it could signal an end to the stalemate in Lebanese politics.
We want to provide support to the Lebanese Army, making it Lebanon’s sole defender.
Patriarch Bechara, Boutros Al-Rai
The FPM, led by Gebran Bassil, did not attend, saying it feared that the gathering “would be used against it,” according to affiliated websites.
Sources at Bkerke told Arab News that Al-Rai decided to speak out “because Lebanon is facing an existential threat” following the failure of a string of initiatives, including his efforts to reconcile Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
Banners unfurled on the dome of the Bkerke church read: “Neutrality, sovereignty, and stability,” “Lebanon comes first and last,” and “Bkerke for all of Lebanon.”
Al-Rai said at the outset of his address: “Long live a single, united and neutral Lebanon that is active, positive, sovereign, independent, free and strong.”
He said: “We are demanding this now because all other solutions have reached a dead end, and we have not been able to agree on the fate of our country, nor even to discuss our homeland’s affairs. We support finding a solution inside Lebanon.”
He added: “To let hunger and oppression destroy the country is something we do not accept in any way. Rejecting the proposed solutions means chaos and seizing the levers of power.”
Al-Rai called for an international conference to ensure Lebanon’s neutrality, so that it “is no longer a victim of conflicts and wars, and a land of division.”
He added: “We want the state to extend its authority over the entire Lebanese territory. We want to provide support to the Lebanese army, making it Lebanon’s sole defender.”
Al-Rai said the UN-sponsored conference also should agree on a plan “to prevent the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and ensure a safe return for Syrian refugees to their homeland.”
He said: “We do not want armies and camps, nor do we want Lebanon to be undermined. Lebanon’s borders are not subject to amendment, its Christian-Muslim partnership is untouchable, and its democracy is not subject to veto.”
The patriarch called on protesters to continue to speak out, saying: “Do not remain silent in the face of corruption. Do not tolerate the theft of your money, the fluid borders, the failure of the political class, the chaos in the investigation into the Beirut port explosion, or the imprisonment of the innocent.
“Do not tolerate the failure in forming a government and implementing reforms.”
Participants in the rally, many from different sects, told Arab News that Al-Rai is their last hope.
“No politician cares for the collapsing state. Politicians have left us on our own,” said one.
A Muslim woman in her 50s said: “This is an opportunity to raise our voice. The patriarch’s stances are patriotic, and history will remember him. The country is collapsing.”
A man in his 40s said: “I have come to Bkerke to say that people suffer from hunger and despair, and there is nothing left to lose.”
Internal security forces personnel were deployed on the road to the church’s headquarters, and those entering the square were searched.
Before the gathering, Hezbollah and FPM supporters took to social media to share tweets opposing the event.