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Maronite patriarch asks whether officials have a conscience

File photo shows Pope Benedict XVI, right, greeting Patriarch Beshara Rai during a mass on the waterfront in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

BEIRUT: The Maronite patriarch used his Sunday sermon to lash out at government officials for their performance in dealing with illegal weapons, kidnappings and several other issues, asking whether they had a “conscience.”

Speaking in Bkirki, Beshara Rai addressed politicians and asked pointedly, “Where are your consciences, when illegal weapons, enjoying political cover, spread throughout the country? The authority of the state is receding dramatically as innocent people, young and old, are being kidnapped in exchange for ransoms.”

A report on the recent spate of kidnappings written by the country’s three main security bodies was referred to the country’s leaders, security sources told The Daily Star.

The report was sent to President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, as well as relevant security and judicial officials, the sources said.

The report, which was compiled by the Internal Security Forces, the Lebanese Army and General Security, and published by An-Nahar newspaper Saturday, said various gangs were behind the spree of kidnappings that has recently disturbed stability.

It added that the security forces were able to identify 37 members of such gangs, which operate across Lebanon and control their activity from various towns.

“These gang members control their activity from private lairs in their hometowns,” said the report. “These gang members also have branches in the southern suburbs of Beirut and they hire former detainees or wanted people to work with them,” it added.

According to the report, the gangsters are of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian nationalities.

Since last year a spree of kidnappings has targeted a number of businessmen, women and even children.

The patriarch challenged officials to acknowledge that they were unable to handle their responsibilities as a whole, and “take as an example the courageous decision” of Pope Benedict XVI to relinquish his duties as pontiff.

“Are you truly able of carrying out your weighty responsibilities? Is your professional conscience at ease, when the political crisis paralyzes the country and threatens the existence of this nation?” Rai asked.

“After years of study in committee and the putting forward of proposals, you are unable to author a [parliamentary] election law,” the patriarch said. “If the elections do not take place on time, God forbid, you will have done away with the final aspect of democracy, namely rotation of power.”

Rai and leading Christian parties have advocated the adoption of an election law proposal that would see each sect elect its own MPs, but Parliament has yet to endorse the legislation, threatening a postponement of the June polls.

The patriarch lashed out at officials’ performance on the economy, asking, “Where are your consciences when poverty eats away at the overwhelming majority of the people and our country’s economy faces a frightening collapse?”

Rai complained that corruption and the squandering of public funds were rampant, while a series of strikes, which have targeted the education sector, was causing difficulties for tens of thousands of students and their families.

“Is your professional conscience at ease because of the strikes by teachers and closure of schools, and thus the punishment of students and their parents, and educational programs?”

Rai also criticized what he said was a “heretical” call for enacting retroactive pay raises for teachers, because this would lead to the closure of private schools.

“It will fan strife between the school administrations and the parents,” the patriarch warned.

An open strike at public and private schools began last week, to pressure the government into sending the pay raise legislation to Parliament, although private schools have not uniformly heeded the strike call. School administrations have warned that they would increase tuition fees if Parliament enacts the wage hike.

Turning to Syria, Rai urged the warring sides in Lebanon’s neighbor to accept negotiations in order to halt the “bleeding” that was threatening Syria and Lebanon.

“Where are the consciences of those who are fighting? They are not stopping their crimes against humanity, and they are not sitting down at the negotiation table to have mercy on their people, their country and their future,” Raid said.

The patriarch also urged Lebanese officials to act swiftly to protect the country from the dangers resulting from the war in Syria. He warned that the current figure of more than 300,000 refugees, officially registered with the United Nations, could rise to 700,000 by June, while another 50,000 Palestinians had also fled to Lebanon from the fighting in Syria.

“Do our officials ask about the future of Lebanon in terms of security, society, demographics, politics and culture amid this displacement [of Syrians]?” Must Lebanon bear all of the misfortunes of the war in Syria? How will our country be protected in the face of these repercussions, and this war?”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 25, 2013, on page 3.

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