In Saudi visit, Lebanese patriarch backs PM Hariri over resignation

 14 Nov 2017 - 20:52

In Saudi visit, Lebanese patriarch backs PM Hariri over resignation
Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch Beshara Rai meets with Saudi officials on November 14, 2017, in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia's King Salman hosted the head of the Lebanese Maronite church, Beshara Rai, a historic first at a time when Riyadh is stepping up the pressure on Iran-backed Hezbollah. AFP

AFP

Riyadh:  The head of Lebanon's Maronite church, in a historic visit to Saudi Arabia, voiced support Tuesday for prime minister Saad Hariri over his resignation, which tipped his country into crisis.

Beshara Rai arrived in Riyadh on Monday in the first trip to the kingdom by a senior Lebanese figure since Hariri quit on November 4 in a shock announcement from the Saudi capital.

Hariri had cited fears for his life and accused Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite movement that is part of his government but close to Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran, of controlling Lebanon.

"I am convinced by the reasons for his resignation," Rai said. "He will return to Lebanon as soon as possible."

Many observers suspected Riyadh had ordered him to resign, and senior Lebanese politicians have alleged he is under de facto house arrest in the capital.

But in his first tweet in several days on Tuesday, Hariri brushed aside those allegations.

"Everybody, I'm totally fine. God willing, I'll be back in these two days. Let's calm down," he wrote.

He added that his family would stay in Saudi Arabia, calling it "their country".

Hariri's resignation came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in conflicts and power struggles from Syria to Yemen.

- 'Aggressive confrontation' -

Lebanon has been buffeted for decades by conflicts between bigger players in the region such as Iran and Syria.

The latest crisis has sparked international concern, with the US warning against using Lebanon as a "venue for proxy conflicts" and the United Nations saying it was essential no new conflict erupts in an already strife-torn region.

"Saudi Arabia has lit a fire, and seems bent on a more aggressive confrontation with Iran," said Thanassis Cambanis, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a New York think-tank.

"Hariri seems less intent on confrontation than (Saudi Arabia), but Hariri doesn't seem to be able to call his own shots," Cambanis told AFP.

In a fresh statement Tuesday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that Hariri must be able to return home from Saudi Arabia to end uncertainty caused by his abrupt resignation.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who previously voiced concern over the crisis in Lebanon, is set to visit Riyadh on Thursday.

Rai's trip to Saudi Arabia, though overshadowed by Hariri's resignation, is significant as it symbolises a rare inter-religious exchange in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom, home to the holiest sites in Islam.

Rai is the top cleric in Lebanon's powerful Maronite community, and is regularly consulted by both Christian and non-Christian political figures as well as receiving foreign dignitaries.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, he met King Salman and powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday.

The patriarch and the king "reviewed fraternal relations between the kingdom and Lebanon and confirmed the importance of the role of different religions and cultures in promoting tolerance, renouncing violence and terrorism," the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.