BEIRUT: A senior Lebanese Maronite cleric’s detention and military court summons following a visit to his parish in Israel sparked indignation among Christian leaders on Wednesday.
Bishop Musa Al-Hajj, archbishop of Haifa and the holy land, was detained for 11 hours and faced an eight-hour interrogation after returning to Lebanon. His passport was seized and a travel ban imposed by military court judge Fadi Akiki.
Al-Hajj was accused of bringing large sums of money in US dollars into Lebanon.
His detention sparked anger in church and political circles. It is not the first time that Al-Hajj has visited Israel, after obtaining special permission from the army command to cross the border, especially since the Maronite Church owns property and land in the area.
While the two countries remain technically at war, Hajj visited Israel because he heads a community of Lebanese Christian Maronites living there, many of whom are refugees who collaborated with Israel during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
The controversy over his arrest has brought to light the issue of the Lebanese who fled to Israel 22 years ago, and also revealed the behind-the-scenes political tug-of-war over the next Lebanese president.
The Council of Maronite Bishops, which held an exceptional meeting on Wednesday headed by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, expressed its dismay at Al-Hajj’s arrest.
Sources close to Al-Rai said: “Whoever wanted to deliver a political message to Al-Rai through Al-Hajj’s arrest can consider the message received, but Al-Rai will never shift positions.”
President Michel Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati both phoned Al-Rai to condemn the cleric’s detention.
Al-Hajj visited Al-Rai at his residence on Wednesday and briefed the patriarch on his 11-hour detention at the Al-Naqoura crossing.
The cleric said that all the items he was carrying with him, including medicines and aid to Lebanese families, and even his personal mobile phone, were searched without regard to his religious position, and he was released only after the judiciary and the church became involved.
“I was treated with respect during those 11 hours, but I was detained and asked many questions,” Al-Hajj said.
A judicial source told Arab News: “During the investigation, many medicines and a sum of money worth $460,000 were found in Al-Hajj’s possession. He also had a list of more than 100 Lebanese names, and next to each name was a reference to an amount of money not exceeding $500 or a reference to a medicine bag to be delivered to them.
“The investigation focused on the possibility of suspected money laundering for spies. So the names on the list were compared to the files of suspected Israeli spies who fled to Israel after the latter withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, and they are accused of joining the ranks of the South Lebanon Army, which was operating under Israeli command.”
According to the judicial source, Al-Hajj faced prosecution 18 months ago after a soldier in the Lebanese army charged with colluding with Israel admitted that he had received a sum of money from the cleric.
“However, Al-Hajj was not arrested at the time. Only the soldier was arrested and tried for colluding with Israel.”
The local Al-Markaziyah news agency quoted a source close to the Lebanese Church and the Vatican as saying: “Al-Hajj’s arrest now has existential and fateful dimensions; it is a message to the Vatican and an attempt to harm the identity and existence of Lebanon as an entity. The Vatican has previously stressed the necessity of Lebanon’s neutrality and steering clear of imported ideologies that have nothing to do with it.”
During his Sunday sermon, Al-Rai discussed the Maronite president to be elected at the end of the current president’s term in October.
“We want to elect a president who does not pose a challenge to this or that matter, who is 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 and is thus unable to implement neutrality,” he said
Amin Gemayel, former president, said: “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 added: “We reject this political message addressed to Al-Rai in response to his patriotic stances.”
The Druze community’s religious authority said that Al-Hajj was transporting aid sent by good samaritans in Palestine to relatives or charities in Lebanon and Syria. It also condemned Al-Hajj’s arrest and defamation, and said that the issue should be viewed from a humanitarian standpoint.
Many expressed solidarity with Al-Hajj on social media. However, no activist affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah’s ally, reacted to the incident.