BEIRUT, April 1 (Reuters) – Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric has made unusually direct comments criticizing the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, accusing it of harming the country by dragging it into regional conflicts.
A leaked video of remarks by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai marked his strongest criticism yet of Hezbollah, which declined to comment.
“I want to tell them…You want us to stay in a state of war that you decide? Are you asking us before you go to war?” Rai said in the video, circulated by local media on Thursday, in which he mentioned the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“You’re not looking out for (our) interests, nor the interests of your people,” he said, apparently addressing Hezbollah, a heavily-armed movement allied to its patron Iran in regional wars.
Rai said he had received visits from Hezbollah supporters who were privately critical of the group as they felt the force of Lebanon’s financial collapse.
“We get people from Hezbollah. They come to us to tell us: ‘This arsenal is against us, we can no longer endure’. Because they are also hungry like us,” he said.
The patriarch wields influence in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church, from which the president must be drawn under a sectarian power-sharing system.
Rai has called for Lebanon to remain neutral, referring to Hezbollah’s deployment of fighters to neighbouring Syria alongside Shi’ite Muslim militias and its alliance with Iran in a power struggle with Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah’s opponents say its expanding role has pushed away Gulf Arab monarchies and the money they once funnelled into Lebanon. Hezbollah and its political allies hold sway in Lebanon’s parliament.
Lebanon’s financial meltdown has crashed the currency, fuelling poverty and hunger, its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war that fractured the country along sectarian lines.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)