Comments made by President Michel Aoun during a trip to Bkirki Thursday
led to a war of words with Speaker Nabih Berri, while Maronite
Patriarch Beshara Rai’s remarks drew the ire of the Higher Islamic
Shiite Council. On his first official visit outside of the presidential
palace as Lebanon’s head of state, Aoun lamented the fact that
Parliament had extended its term twice in recent years. “All
institutions were damaged due to the extension of the Parliament’s term
and the inability of the governing body to act,” he said.
Aoun’s comments drew a swift response from Berri. “Of course the
extension was bad and state institutions became weak as the president
said, but hindering the election of a head of state was far worse for
the institutions, including the Parliament,” the speaker said in a
statement issued by his media office. Aoun and allies had boycotted
presidential elections for nearly two and half years before Aoun secured
victory and was elected Oct. 31.
Meanwhile, Rai called on Aoun to assume his role in working with
Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to form a Cabinet, which would
equally distribute responsibilities among all parties. “It is unacceptable to [demand] a ‘package of conditions’ and [for
parties] to cling on to [portfolios] by using a veto,” Rai said,
apparently referring to Berri’s insistence on keeping the Finance
Responding to Rai, vice president of the Higher Islamic Shiite
Council Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan refuted the apparent jab against
Berri’s insistence that the ministry remains with the Shiite community.
Qabalan fired back at Rai saying, “The Shiite Muslims were and always
will be the keenest for a just and equally representative state.”
Qabalan added that Shiites, historically, were deprived and disadvantaged “even in defending their own lands “We refute these words that we heard today because we demand
something that is a true representation in empowerment,” Qabalan said in
response to Rai adding, “Yes, it is a right of ours and in the case of
the abolishment of sectarianism, we will be the first to support it.”
Aoun, accompanied by his son-in-law and caretaker Foreign Minister
Gebran Bassil, was welcomed at the seat of the Maronite Church by Rai. A
representative from the Vatican and a number of patriarchs from
different sects were also present. Following a prayer service held in Aoun’s honor, Rai congratulated
the president while praising him for making his first official visit to
Bkirki as has been a customary move by former presidents.
He added that after two years and five months without a president,
Aoun’s election unified Lebanese political parties and parliamentary
blocks, overcoming previous divisions. “It is now imperative for you to
continue the positive beginning of your term to assure a balanced
participation between all in the administration,” Rai said to Aoun.
Aoun was told by Rai that now was his chance to fully implement the
Taif Accord by agreeing on a new electoral law that ensures the
representation of all Lebanese and is capable of holding those in power
responsible. “The president of the republic and the Maronite
Patriarchate work together in unison to preserve Lebanon,” Rai said.
Rai called on all Lebanese to live by the words of Lebanon’s first
Patriarch Elias Hoayek, whom he called the “Father of Lebanon.” “I am a Maronite patriarch ... I am the patriarch of Lebanon ... I
dedicated my life to the Lebanese cause, which I consider a holy cause.
For me, it is not a Lebanon of sects, there is one sect and its name is
the Lebanese sect,” Rai said, quoting Hoayek.
The first patriarch was in charge of the Maronite Church at the time Lebanon gained its independence. Rai also quoted another former Lebanese patriarch to stress that
Bkirki was for all Lebanese, not just one sect. “This patriarchate is
not for the Maronite sect only, it is a house for all Lebanese. [It] has
always stood for the Lebanese cause without differentiating between one
sect and another,” Rai said.
Aoun echoed Rai in stressing the need for Lebanon to respect and follow Patriarch Elias Hoayek’s motto of coexistence.
“While Christians in the Middle East face potentially the most
difficult times today ... we, in Lebanon, face the same threat,” Aoun
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2016, on page 2.