BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai praised Monday the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining security and foiling attempts to stir up sectarian strife in the country.
Sleiman and Rai’s remarks came amid growing fears of Sunni-Shiite strife in the southern city of Sidon after Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir threatened to remove what he claimed were armed Hezbollah members in apartments located near his mosque in Abra, east of Sidon.
The Army and security forces have deployed heavily in Abra and Sidon to prevent sectarian clashes.
The remarks also came after Tripoli’s Salafist Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal threatened to issue “a jihad fatwa” against anyone who offends the Sunnis. In an implicit criticism of the Army’s role, Shahhal, speaking at a news conference in Tripoli Sunday, called on “the military establishment to rectify its performance and path in order to preserve public security in the country.”
Sleiman commended “the role of the military and security forces, on top of that of the Army, in maintaining security and civil peace and preventing strife, especially under these circumstances through which the region is going,” according to a statement issued by the president’s office.
Referring to Sunday’s peaceful municipal by-elections in some towns and villages in the north and south, Sleiman said: “This shows there is no alternative to legitimate security, which remains the only guarantor of the security of the country and citizens.”
He called on the Lebanese to rally behind the Army and security forces and avoid attacking these forces anytime or anywhere.
“It is in the interests of everyone, without exception, to rally behind the state, and its security agencies in particular, because the breakdown of security will not provide any political or security umbrella to anyone,” Sleiman said.
The president chaired a meeting at Baabda Palace to review details of a Cabinet plan to supply the Army with the necessary equipment to enable it to carry out its mission.
Rai too voiced support for the Army’s role in protecting the country.
Asked to comment on recent campaigns targeting the Army’s role, the patriarch, before leaving for the Vatican to participate in the election of a new pope, told reporters at Beirut airport: “I want to salute the Lebanese Army, which alone represents our dignity and honor and protects us. The life of the Army is to sacrifice for the country.”
“We grant the Army our confidence and preserve its dignity and prestige. All citizens and officials must respect the Army because it represents the legitimate [authorities] and the national military forces,” Rai said.
“Had we not had a Lebanese Army, we would have [had to endure the] law of the jungle,” he added.
For his part, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel dismissed Shahhal’s threat to issue a fatwa against the Army.
“Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal cannot issue a fatwa against the Lebanese Army, which is the backbone of the state,” Charbel told a news conference. “The Army is made up of all Lebanese sects, particularly the Sunni sect, which has offered a large number of martyrs from among its ranks.”
Shahhal, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, has led street protests in Tripoli in support of the armed rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
At his Sunday news conference, Shahhal warned that Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in the fighting alongside regime forces in Syria might lead to civil strife in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the country’s top Sunni and Shiite religious leaders conferred on ways to avert sectarian strife.
Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, deputy head of the Higher Shiite Council, spoke by telephone with Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani to discuss “what can be done to prevent the country from sliding into strife for any reason or over any divisive issue,” according to a statement released by Dar al-Fatwa’s media office.
The two religious leaders discussed “ways to boost security, stability and safety of the Lebanese, particularly the acceleration of a new electoral law on which MPs agree in Parliament in order to foil any strife that might be exploited by anyone.”