Syriac Maronite Church Stands Firm Against Hezbollah

This article was originally published by Newsweek on 15 August 2022. The original can be found here.

By Richard Ghazi Executive Director, In Defense of Christians

Lebanon, one of the few remaining vestiges of Christianity in the Middle East, now remains firmly under the thumb of Iran through its proxy Hezbollah.

It wasn’t always this way. The late Pope John Paul II famously referred to Lebanon as a “message of fraternity—East and West.” The important role played by the Catholic Church—particularly the Syriac Maronite Church—ensured that Lebanon remained buoyant through centuries marked by war, genocide and mass Christian exodus.

Following the Armenian genocide, which claimed the lives of nearly 3 million Christians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the late Maronite Patriarch Elias Howayek successfully lobbied the European powers for Lebanon’s recognition as a refuge for the free exercise of religion. In recent decades, the late Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir led the healing of a nation torn along sectarian lines after the devastating 15-year Lebanese Civil War.

Maronite patriarchs have served through the centuries as the elder statesmen and custodians of one of the last examples of vibrant pluralism and democracy in the Middle East. While voices critical of Hezbollah have come and gone with the political tide, the Maronite Patriarchate has consistently been the voice for Lebanese neutrality, sovereignty and security. The current Patriarch Moran Mor Bechara Boutros Rai continues this tradition as he fights to keep Lebanon from becoming an Iranian vassal state.

Of course, standing against Hezbollah isn’t without risk. Patriarch Rai has bravely assumed that risk for the good of his Christian flock, and for all freedom-loving Lebanese. For his willingness to stand for truth, this man of God is faced with daily death threats.

In a Sunday morning homily in August 2021, Patriarch Rai called on the Lebanese Armed Forces to strictly enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 for the disarmament of Hezbollah. This call was in response to Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into Israel from a populated civilian village in southern Lebanon, not far from the place believed to be the location of Christ’s first miracle at Cana.

Hezbollah’s launching of rockets into Israel is a common modus intended to plunge Lebanon into another kinetic war with Israel. Hezbollah has thrived for over four decades due only to its raison d’être as the supposed guarantor of Lebanon’s defense against Israel. To remain relevant, Hezbollah needs war.

While Hezbollah benefits from the vacuum created by lawlessness and foreign dependence, Christians in Lebanon—and the greater Middle East—thrive in societies characterized by the rule of law and independent sovereignty.

Patriarch Rai asserted in his homily, “It’s unacceptable that a single, illegitimate party can decide between war and peace outside of the legitimate, constitutional framework.” In response to this admonishment, the patriarch was subjected to death threats, featuring the mock execution of effigies, vowing imminent violence against the Christian leader.

Intimidation and naked threats against Christian clergy in Lebanon have increased markedly in recent years. And what’s more worrisome, they’ve become increasingly sophisticated, and now leverage the power of a corrupt government.

In July 2022, Lebanese authorities seized and detained Maronite Archbishop Mousa El-Hajj upon his return from pastoral duties in Israel. Humanitarian aid in his possession, intended for Lebanese civilians, was confiscated. He was brought before a military judge—a known Hezbollah sympathizer—for interrogation.

A picture taken on 30 April 2015, of a 2 km long rosary, which is said to be the longest in the world, hanging around the shrine at Our Lady of Lebanon religious site in Harissa, northeast of Beirut. (Image: Joseph Eid / AFP)

Lebanese citizens are banned from travelling to Israel. However, the law makes a narrow exemption for clergy whose duties necessitate such travel. Archbishop El-Hajj serves the Holy Land, and travels between Lebanon and Israel regularly in the course of his duties. This arrest was not a matter of law enforcement. The facts and circumstances clearly indicate a malign political motive. His arrest occurred in flagrant contempt of his pastoral duty, and further threaten Lebanon’s tradition of religious freedom.

Lebanese border and port security are controlled by Hezbollah. The weaponization of state institutions, and the detention of Archbishop El-Hajj, is part of a broad and overt Iranian campaign to intimidate Christians and other critics of Hezbollah’s political coercion.

As a result of the patriarch’s condemnation of the unjust government action, and his renewed opposition to Hezbollah’s coercion over the Lebanese state, he continues to receive a steady salvo of threats from various sources, which share a single origin: Iran.

Such government-backed actions against Christian leaders demonstrate Iran’s strongarm control over the Lebanese government, and its malign intention to solidify Lebanon as a satellite state.

If the Biden administration is serious about regional stability and human rights, it must strongly censure and sanction the Lebanese agencies and officials responsible for such acts of persecution. If Lebanon doesn’t take human rights seriously, the administration and Congress should scrutinize, and discontinue, future aid to the Lebanese government.

Lebanese civilians, irrespective of religious confession, are victims of an ongoing humanitarian crisis brought on by endemic social and governmental corruption. With the Lebanese economic disaster ranking among the worst financial crises in modern history, the imposition of sanctions, or the discontinuation of aid, would make a historically grim situation even worse; this is one of many challenges facing Lebanon’s government.

Under the thumb of Iran, Lebanon’s message of coexistence between East and West, as envisioned by Pope John Paul II, faces serious threat. Lebanon’s fate will dictate the fate of Christians throughout the greater Middle East.

Patriarch Rai’s firm stance is a testament to Christian conviction and demonstrates his vision for a peaceful Lebanon. His steadfast condemnation of evil, while within evil’s ugly reach, is a modern-day profile in courage.

Richard Ghazal is executive director at In Defense of Christians. He is a retired U.S. Air Force judge advocate and intelligence officer.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.