BEIRUT: A Hezbollah delegation is expected to visit Bkirki soon for talks with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai on political issues, including the presidential election, as part of “constant contacts” between the party and the Maronite Church, a senior Hezbollah official said Sunday. However, the Hezbollah delegation’s forthcoming visit to Bkirki comes amid a heated controversy over Rai’s planned trip to occupied Jerusalem later this month, a sensitive issue that is likely to figure high in the talks between the two sides.
Hezbollah has so far remained tight-lipped on Rai’s planned trip. The head of the influential Maronite Church has said he would join Pope Francis during a tour of the Holy Land on May 24-26, a visit that would make Rai the first Maronite patriarch to travel to Israel since it was founded in 1948.
Lebanon, which is technically in a state of war with Israel, bans any contact with or visit to the Jewish state.
“A visit to Bkirki is possible at any moment. We are in constant and permanent contact with Bkirki through a [joint] dialogue committee,” Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau, told The Daily Star.
“Our relations with Bkirki are normal. We will discuss through the dialogue committee all political issues, including the presidential election,” he said. “There are almost daily contacts and regular meetings are held between Hezbollah and Bkirki on all political and other issues, including the presidential election.”
Abu Zeinab is part of a four-member dialogue committee set up by former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir in 1993 tasked with narrowing differences between the two sides on sensitive issues such as Hezbollah’s arms, the building of a strong state and Syria’s role in Lebanon before Damascus withdrew its army in April 2005.
In addition to Abu Zeinab and Mustafa al-Hajj Ali representing Hezbollah, the committee also includes Maronite Bishop Samir Mazloum and Hares Chehab representing Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate.
Chehab confirmed the committee would meet some time this week.
“The committee will continue debating the issues discussed in previous meetings. The most important of these issues is the need for Parliament to elect a new president on time and for lawmakers to secure the required [two-thirds] quorum for the election session,” Chehab told The Daily Star. He added that the committee would also underline the need to maintain security and stability in the face of threats posed by the repercussions of the 3-year-old war in Syria.
Parliament has failed to elect a new president for the third time in a row over lack of a quorum, raising fears of a vacuum in the top Christian post after President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office ends on May 25.
The Bkirki- Hezbollah committee meets on a regular behind-the-scenes basis (at least once every month or so) to discuss urgent political and security developments in Lebanon as well as the impact of regional turmoil on the country’s security and stability.
The committee’s meetings came to a halt after the church’s ties with Hezbollah were strained when Sfeir began launching scathing verbal attacks on Syria’s role in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s arms, accusing the party of running a state within a state and preventing the rise of one powerful nation.
However, Bkirki- Hezbollah ties began to improve with the election of Bishop Beshara Rai in 2011 as the new patriarch replaced Sfeir.
Since his election, Rai has made statements supporting Hezbollah’s right to keep its arsenal until an overall peace settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict has been reached. He also defended the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah’s key ally, as a guarantee for the Christian minority in the face of extremist Muslim groups who have joined armed Syrian rebels in the war against the regime.
Rai’s statements at the time sparked a wide controversy within the Christian community and even drew criticism from some March 14 Maronite politicians.
Asked whether Hezbollah endorsed or opposed Rai’s trip to occupied Jerusalem, Abu Zeinab said: “ Hezbollah did not and will not comment on this issue in public. We will not discuss issues related to Bkirki’s stances through the media, but through the appropriate channel: the dialogue committee.”
The Hezbollah official dodged a question as to whether Rai’s planned visit to occupied Jerusalem caused a strain in ties with the party. “The channels of communication are always open between Hezbollah and Bkirki. If we have anything to say to Bkirki, we will say it through the dialogue committee,” Abu Zeinab replied.
Supporters of Rai’s visit say the trip will help affirm Jerusalem’s multireligious character and encourage Palestinian Christians to remain in their land.
But critics argue that with this visit, Rai would be recognizing Israel, a state many Arabs see illegitimate and a symbol of injustice, humiliation and occupation.
Rai has hit back at his critics, saying the trip was part of his religious duties. “My leader, the leader of the church, is coming to the land of the patriarch. ... Should I stay in my house? Do I not have a clerical duty to receive the pope?” Rai told reporters at Rafik Hariri International Airport last week after returning from France.
Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a pro- Hezbollah Sunni preacher, defended Rai’s trip to the Holy Land, saying the Maronite patriarch did not aim at normalizing ties with Israel.