BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai hit back Sunday at his critics, defending his controversial remarks on Syria and Hezbollah’s arms, which drew harsh criticism from the opposition March 14 parties, but were widely welcomed by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Mikati came out in support of Rai’s stance on the need for Hezbollah to keep its arms as long as Israel still occupied a parcel of Lebanese territory.
“The Maronite patriarch spoke about a part [of the problem]. No one is against the resistance’s arms as long as [Israeli] occupation continues. There is Lebanese unanimity on the resistance’s arms in the face of [Israeli] occupation,” Mikati said in an interview with Al-Jadeed television Sunday night.
Mikati refused to take a stand on Rai’s warning of the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria if President Bashar Assad is brought down by the popular uprising there. He said he will meet this week with Rai to seek clarifications from him on this issue.
Some March 14 politicians said they will meet Rai this week to seek clarifications on his statements on Syria and Hezbollah’s arms which sparked a political storm in the Christian heartland.
Apparently referring to March 14 politicians who have criticized his remarks, Rai said he regreted that some people addressed issues superficially. He said his comments were misinterpreted by some March 14 Maronite politicians.
Rai spoke to reporters at Beirut airport upon his return from a one-week visit to France, where he had talks with President Nicholas Sarkozy and other senior French officials on Lebanese-French relations, the situation in Lebanon and the popular upheavals in the Arab world.
He praised Sarkozy for displaying great concern about the situation in Lebanon and the Christians in the Middle East countries.
“Our presence in France was organized at the security level and included questions and consultations. This gave us a big value which is that we must be like them [French] serious and responsible and to look into matters deeply rather than superficially, and not to be opportunists, but to be objective,” Rai said.
Referring to March 14 Maronite politicians who criticized him for linking the party’s arsenal to the termination of Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory, Rai said: “I don’t want to say anything on what I have heard or read. But I regretted that most of us look at matters superficially.”
The Maronite patriarch said his statements on Hezbollah and Syria were misinterpreted in a way that did not conform at all with the seriousness and responsible view at matters that prevailed before his visit to France.
“Yes, my brothers the [Maronite] bishops and I have felt responsibility that we can only address matters seriously and responsibly,” he said.
“All this hospitality displayed by France calls on us, by virtue of respect of this great country, to continue a responsible line with them and to look into matters deeply and seriously as they did,” Rai added.
“In fact, I return with joy in my heart and a will to work seriously, energetically and responsibly, hoping that all of us can address matters in Lebanon with the required seriousness and responsibility as this friendly country, France, has known us,” the patriarch said.
Rai said Sarkozy and other French officials he met knew that the Maronite patriarch spoke objectively without taking any interest into account.
“I am faithful to the motto I have raised: Partnership and love. I respect everyone, I love everyone and I wish good for everyone. I am not a complaining man,” he said. Rai called on media people to be objective and report matters thoroughly. “People should read the entire story and not just the headline,” he said.
Rai’s remarks drew harsh criticisms from some March 14 politicians who said that the patriarch’s comments on the divisive issue of Hezbollah ran contrary to the concept of state building and contradicted with the Maronite Church’s long-standing position in support of state authority.
In an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel broadcast Thursday night, Rai said: “Hezbollah’s arms are linked to several issues. We have said this to the authorities in France. Everyone says why is Hezbollah carrying arms? We responded that the international community did not exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from Lebanese territory. As long as there is an occupied Lebanese territory, Hezbollah will maintain that it wants to carry arms in defense of its land. What will we say to it then? Isn’t it [Hezbollah] right?”
Rai also linked Hezbollah’s arms to the return of an estimated 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to their homes in Palestine.
Rai was also criticized for saying that Assad should be given a chance to carry out political reforms in the face of protesters demanding his ouster and for warning that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria posed a threat to the Christians there.
Kataeb (Phalange) bloc MP Nadim Gemayel told MTV that March 14 parties will meet with Rai to seek clarification on his statements on Syria and Hezbollah’s arms. “Rai’s positions on Hezbollah and the Syrian regime forced March 14 parties to respond and not wait until [Rai] returns [from France],” Gemayel said.
However, Rai’s remarks won praise from Hezbollah. “Patriarch Rai’s stance is not biased toward Hezbollah. It is biased toward the all-embracing national interest in general, and in the interest of Christians in particular,” Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad told a rally in the southern town of Taloussa Sunday.